Welcoming the Stranger

Refugees-La-Sagrada-Familia“The Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.”
~ Deuteronomy 10:17-19

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
~ Matthew 25:35

When the Trump Administration announced in April a “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border leading to the separation of children from parents, the response of the global religious community was swift and emphatic. Interfaith groups from all points along the theological spectrum, including Orthodox Jews, the Islamic Society of North America, The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention (among many Baptist groups) condemned the practice, and faith leaders from Pope Francis to Franklin Graham repudiated attempts to justify such actions from Scripture.

Anyone who thinks the immigration issue is simple is not paying attention. Addressing the complications of migration is undoubtably complex because the issues are ever evolving, and the politics of immigration make things even trickier.  As Duncan Lawrence, executive director of Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab, points out: when it comes to immigration policy, people tend to rely on anecdotes and ideology rather than evidence.

The United Nations reports 65.6 million displaced people worldwide, including more than 25 million refugees. An estimated 44,000 people per day are forced to flee their homes. Our country is filled with of people of boundless imagination and towering compassion and yet, as a nation, we are in danger of losing our capacity for empathy, especially toward “foreigners”. Even Christians, who at the moment are rightly denouncing the separation of immigrant families at the border, offer a surprisingly tepid response when it comes to welcoming even the world’s most vulnerable ones—refugees who are fleeing danger and persecution and are seeking asylum within our borders.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 51% of Americans agree we have a responsibility to accept refugees. The group least supportive of welcoming refugees is white evangelical Christians (only 25% affirm). But surprisingly, even progressive Christians appear to be hesitant. A mere 43% percent of white mainline Protestants and just 50% of Catholics agree the U.S. should embrace refugees. (The most welcoming of all Christian groups is black Protestants at 63%.)

And this, to me, is the most cringeworthy statistic in the Pew report: at 65%, the religiously unaffiliated outpace Christians of every category in affirming of America’s responsibility to welcome refugees seeking safety within our borders.

How we treat the foreigner and the stranger says a lot about our understanding of God. The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. The Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. The Israelites were “illegal aliens” when they arrived in the Promised Land. It was famine and death (read: economic hardship) that compelled “undocumented” Ruth to migrate with her mother-in-law Naomi. Notably, Boaz didn’t deport her back to Moab. And Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 25: Every stranger you see, especially the least of these, is really me. He promised that one day we’d hear him say these words: Whenever you welcomed the stranger you were welcoming me. Whenever you turned away from a stranger you were turning away from me.

When considering the issue of immigration, Christians must begin by asking what our faith teaches us. What happens in our minds and hearts when we consider the issue in the spirit of Jesus? How does our perspective shift when we see the immigrants and refugees not as statistics but as children of God?

What is the Spirit saying here? How will the Church respond?

Artwork above: “Refugees la Sagrada Familia” by Kelly Latimore. Used by permission.

8 thoughts on “Welcoming the Stranger

  1. “But this is the most cringeworthy statistic in the Pew report: the religiously unaffiliated outpace Christians of every category in their affirmation of America’s responsibility to welcome refugees seeking safety within our borders (65%).”

    Indeed. Having grown up as a Southern Baptist and hearing the message that we must bring the Gospel to a godless society, I find it quite telling that today we are seeing a higher ethic coming from New York City and a greater compassion coming from Hollywood that we are seeing coming from our Evangelical Christian witness.

  2. Thanks, Julie. As you point out, generosity toward the immigrant and the weak is the core of the gospel as presented in both the Old and New Testament. All the more troubling that white evangelicals are so far behind other Christians, and even non-Christians, in welcoming foreigners to America.
    It’s not America’s gene pool that is responsible for all of its accomplishments over the centuries. It’s the industriousness, but also the freedom, community, and openness to new peoples and ideas that made this country an economic and technological and cultural powerhouse. Recent actions on immigration and vitriolic words against immigrants and the poor seem to indicate that we are in danger of losing that spirit in this country, at least in the seats of power.

  3. My heart aches when I see that to be Christian is to be more closely associated with intransigence and intolerance than Love. It’s no wonder that our children choose not to be associated with the church and the misperception of its purpose.

    “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
    We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
    And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
    And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
    Yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love

    We will work with each other, we will work side by side
    We will work with each other, we will work side by side
    And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride
    And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
    Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.“

  4. Rock solid words, Julie, filled with compassion and truth! I know we can do better. I will be sharing this with friends who are more afraid of the stranger than loving toward the stranger. I think your words will land well. Thank you for your faithful words and full heart spilling over to those in need day by day.

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