Welcoming the stranger

StatueofLiberty

(I have always enjoyed being an uncle, and I am especially proud that both a niece and a nephew have become Christian pastors. They didn’t follow me into ministry. They grew up in Christian families and then in adulthood embraced the faith of their parents. My niece, Kate Van Noord Kooyman, is a graduate of Calvin College and Western Theological Seminary. She is a Reformed Church in America pastor who is passionate about immigration reform. I saw her interviewed by a cable news network not long ago and realized just how articulate she is on the subject, and so I asked if she would write a few words for Doug’s Blog on the subject. Below are those words, together with hyperlinks that support and illustrate her statements. Thanks, Kate.)

Shortly after the birth of my second son, Sam, I went back to work. After months of being home all the time, I was once again immersed in one of the unspoken trials of modern parenthood: daycare drop-off. Crying, whining, begging, clutching, bribing, peeling-toddler-legs-from-mom’s-waist … there must be mommy support groups for this kind of daily trauma.

I got in the habit of reciting a little mantra on the way to daycare, while hyper-extending my elbow so that I could hold hands with my toddler in the back seat: “Sometimes Mommy goes away. But she will always come back. Can you say that with me? She will always come back.”

There’s a new documentary detailing a Christian perspective on undocumented immigrants in the United States, and it made me remember this ritual. In the film, there is a mom who is living life “in the shadows.” She’s working, paying taxes, and raising four kids on her own. At one point she tells us that her youngest daughter has been reporting having dreams that her mom is taken from her. With tears, the mom tell us her response to her child, “I’ll never leave you.” She will always come back. Maria loves her kids as much as I love mine. But her promise isn’t in her hands to fulfill. It’s in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s estimated that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US today. The media has told us that these are “freeloaders,” people looking to game the system. The truth is, the majority of the undocumented pay taxes – even income tax and Social Security contributions they will never benefit from, and they cannot access social services like welfare or food stamps. The media has told us that these are criminals. The truth is, immigrants are markedly less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. For many, the only law-breaking that occurred was overstaying an expired visa, or crossing a border illegally. The public wisdom is that these immigrants should just “get in line” and “come the legal way” just like “my grandparents did.” The truth is, they would love to get in line. There is no line.

There are lots of ways to think and talk about this issue. We could talk about it as an economic issue (spoiler: immigrants are a huge boon to the economy). We could talk about it as a public safety issue (hint: our current system is a dream scenario for slave traders, drug traffickers, abusive spouses, and anyone looking to prey on vulnerable people). Or, we could talk about it like Christians.

But we don’t talk about it like Christians. Pew Research has told us that only 12 percent of American Christians admit they think about immigration primarily from the perspective of their faith. And that’s not surprising when we learn that only 20 percent of them have ever heard immigration mentioned by their pastor. But while the church might be silent on this issue, the Bible is not. The Hebrew word ger (translated immigrant, stranger, sojourner, foreigner) is mentioned in the Old Testament 92 times – reminding Israel to take special care of the ger, to welcome the ger, to treat the ger equally to the native-born. In the New Testament, the Greek word that we translate as “hospitality” is philoxenia. Biblical hospitality isn’t having your friends over for dinner – it is “love of the stranger.” While our culture encourages xenophobia (that strangers are to be feared), thinking like a Christian about immigration means that we actually approach immigrants as God’s means of giving a blessing.

I believe that immigrants do bring a blessing. I believe that they are the hope for the vibrancy of American Christianity. I believe they are the hope for US economic vitality. But mostly I believe they are the way that the native-born remember that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land. That in welcoming the stranger we are immersing ourselves in that foundational story of our faith in which God heard our cries, God freed us from oppression, God was revealed to be bigger than our nationalism, our power structures, our suffering, our sin. Welcoming the stranger is how we remember who God is.

I invite you to pray for reform of our broken immigration system. I invite you to watch and share The Stranger film. And – if you’re a voter in the US – to advocate for Congress to do something to address this crisis. Call 1-866-877-5552 and tell your member of Congress it’s time to decide on a more humane, logical, and hopeful immigration system.

my neice Kate Kooyman
(Photo: Yes, that’s Kate.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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