Robert Gittelson was one of those rare men most of us only meet a few times in our entire lives. I first met Robert in 2010, shortly after he co-founded the group Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. He was sitting with his lovely wife, Patty, in one of the cafeterias of the House of Representatives office buildings. He was between visits with elected officials and professional staff doing what became Robert’s full-time, unpaid labor of love—advocating for immigration reform as an avowed conservative.
At the time, I admired him as a man who was willing to be misunderstood by many conservatives in order to advocate for a cause about which he felt deeply. Here was a man who was spending his own money to travel back and forth from his home in California to Washington, D.C., on a regular basis to help pull immigration reform through the minefields of beltway politics. How could I not admire that kind of dedication? I soon learned that this behavior was not what made Robert Gittelson such an extraordinary man. It was merely the product of his extraordinary character and commitment to Jesus Christ.
Since that first encounter, Robert and I shared many days together trying to convince intransigent members of Congress that a biblically informed, conservative solution for immigration reform was not only possible, but necessary. Robert was a novice at this kind of work, if you think in terms of experience. If you think in terms of ability and skill, however, Robert was a natural. He had what it takes to be an effective advocate on the Hill. He was extremely intelligent and naturally optimistic. He could listen well and argue well. He was always gracious in his speech and actions. He was tenacious in his determination.
I could fill a page with such descriptions of this man. Ultimately, though, Robert was a genuine Christian man. He embodied what it means to be a Christian. He possessed a quiet confidence born out of his steadfast faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He knew God was sovereign in the affairs of men, and he embraced God’s concern for the plight of the vulnerable and the poor. He knew he was engaged in the Lord’s work in his advocacy for a balanced immigration solution that respected the rule of law as well as the dignity of the immigrant.
Robert was also a true brother in the Lord. I had the privilege of sharing many meals with this man who quickly became a close friend. Robert was someone I knew I could trust with anything. I knew if I ever needed to confide in someone, I could tell Robert and he would lock away my deepest burdens in his prayer closet to be shared only with the Lord. He was a man in whom there was truly no guile. He always spoke well of others and loved his family deeply. Some may doubt the church and its institutions, but no one could look at Robert Gittelson and say, “I don’t want that.”
When he could have retired and walked away from all the cares of life for the next 30 years, Robert saw the opportunity to pour his life and resources into helping a group of people who were desperately in need of an advocate. The Lord brought him to his eternal home before he could celebrate the victory of immigration reform with us, but we are much closer to that day because he chose to answer the call of Jesus to love the stranger. In the process, he touched and changed the lives of many others, including mine.
I cannot imagine never hearing his voice on this side of heaven again. I cannot imagine never sitting together with him in a congressman’s office pressing our case for immigration reform. I cannot imagine no more meals grabbed quickly in a congressional office building between meetings. Mostly, I cannot imagine never again laughing with my friend across a table in Washington, D.C., or some immigration reform summit around the country, or on the phone across the continent.
I will continue to do my part to achieve the great, good, necessary goal of immigration reform. And with every meeting, I will try to imagine what Robert would say, and I’ll say it for him. Then, one day, Robert and I will laugh together again and celebrate in the presence of God. I pray that on the day when we all stand before the great God of the universe, the Lord’s pronouncement of, “Well done,” will be spoken as loudly of me as I know it will be for my dear friend, Robert Gittelson.