A circle of people gathered around a makeshift outdoor altar on Capitol Hill early Wednesday, praying that senators at a hearing nearby would reform a failed immigration system that they said has caused millions of people to face “constant fear of deportation” and spend years “living in the shadows.”

About 20 participants observed Ash Wednesday as clergymen smeared ashes on their foreheads, and the service invoked Christian values and metaphors in calling for compassion and welcome to all immigrants. One hymn asked God’s help to “shatter the wall of fear and help us build a bridge of hope.” A prayer said that Jesus had “crossed every border between divinity and humanity to make your home with us.”

The gathering outside the United Methodist Building, organized by Church World Service, was held just before the Senate Judiciary Committee opened the first of several hearings on proposals for comprehensive immigration reform that have been produced by a bipartisan Senate group.

The Senate panel has called for a path to legalization for the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, echoing proposals by President Obama. Clergymen, participants and speakers at the outdoor service said they strongly endorsed this proposal.

Josue Aguiluz, 21, a Honduran student from Colesville, Md., told the group that he and his family had come to the United States without authorization years ago to help pay for medical bills and to give him and his siblings a better life. He said he had won a reprieve from deportation last year under Obama’s new policy on some illegal immigrant youths 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.”

The Rev. Jacek Orzechowski, a member of the Franciscan Action Network, called on Congress to “find the political will to pass common-sense immigration reform,” and asked American leaders to see immigrants through God’s eyes, “not as a threat, but as a blessing” to the nation. After the service, he and the others walked to the Hart Senate Office Building to attend the hearing.