A Franciscan priest from Poland and an illegal immigrant from Honduras joined two dozen others gathered around a makeshift altar on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning, just as a Senate hearing on immigration reform was about to begin one block away.

Standing on a grassy corner near the Senate Hart Building, they sang hymns, recited prayers and quoted Bible verses with a pointed theme: Christ would have welcomed all immigrants, and Christians have a spiritual mandate to extend compassion to all strangers who come among them, no matter what their legal status.

“Free the millions living in the shadows,” the worshippers sang, referring to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. A closing benediction decribed Jesus as having “crossed every border between divinity and humanity to make your home with us.”

Along with spiritual references and rituals, the small Ash Wednesday service had a clear political message for legislators who are taking up the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, starting Wednesday with a series of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on reform proposals from a bipartisan Senate group.

“Now is the time to reform our immigration system,” declared the Rev. Michael Livingston, former president of the National Council of Churches. He called current laws a “recurring litany of failure” that have left families in legal limbo for years, and he urged a “pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who given their blood, sweat and tears for the same American dream that our forebears dreamed, because all of us are created in the image of God.”

Although the group was tiny, it represented a cross-section of denominations and a growing faith movement in the U.S. that is organizing to support immigration reform, especially help for illegal immigrants. Just as some American churches helped shelter Central American refugees in the 1980s and 1990s, many are now reviving that activism to support a full-fledged legalization effort.

Jennifer Smyers, associate director for immigration and refu­gee policy at Church World Service headquarters in Washington, said that many mainstream and evangelical churches are now joining with more liberal faith groups on the issue. Membership in a pro-reform group called the Interfaith Immigration Coalition includes Jewish, Catholic and Episcopal members as well as Unitarian Universalists.

“Various faith communities have been advocating humane and equitable immigration policies for decades,” Smyers said. “Now that we are talking about immigration reform, people of faith all over the country have been responding. All faith communities have diverse members and views, but we are seeing a lot of change,” she said. “Christ is very clear in the Bible when he speaks of the need to welcome strangers and treat them as equals.”

Josue Aguiluz [cq], 21, a Honduran student from Colesville, Md., told the group Wednesday that his mother had brought him to the U.S. without authorization years ago to help pay for family medical bills and give him and his brother a better life. He said he had won a reprieve from deportation last year under President Obama’s new policy aimed at helping some young illegal immigrants known as “dreamers.”

“I am a dreamer. My mother left everything behind to give us a chance to fulfill our dreams, so she is a dreamer too,” said Aguiluz, who is studying to become an accountant at Montgomery Community College. “It is unfair and un-Christian for someone like her to be excluded from our country. Every immigrant is a human, and every immigrant will be a dreamer.”