The Church for Immigrants

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Is the church for immigrants?

I’ve been thinking about the issue of immigration. After kicking around some ideas as a response to the State of the Union Address, I took a look at what the Bible says about the issue. The next question I’m asking flows from that biblical perspective: What is the Church’s role – and the role of individual believers?

Churches in America are uniquely positioned to minister to the immigrants in their communities.

Wouldn’t it be great if your church came to be known as the church for immigrants? How might this happen?

How to become the church for immigrants

Here are a few simple suggestions.

1. Establish language learning groups.

Can you imagine having to uproot your family, move across a border and try to survive in a land full of strangers who speak an entirely different language? It takes loads of courage and more than a little creativity and resourcefulness. It also takes a mammoth amount of work.

Christians should be first in line to help out. Most churches have the space. And, most churches have the people: Spanish teachers, English speaking former immigrants, or high school students who have acquired enough language to help them make an initial connection. A little bit of advertising, a little word of mouth, and a language learning group could be up and running.

And, notice, I didn’t just say these should be English classes. No! I think they should be discussion groups where English speakers teach and learn and non-English speakers teach and learn. The reciprocity would set the stage for great learning and relationships.

2. Offer guidance.

Let’s be honest. It’s difficult for born-and-bred Americans to navigate most of the administrative or legal processes we come upon. When is the last time you signed a contract? Took out a loan? Renewed your driver’s license? Applied for a job? It’s a real hassle. Now, imagine trying to do that in a second language. Yikes!

The church could be on the front lines, guiding immigrants through any number of processes: enrolling their children in school, getting drivers’ licenses, filling out medical paperwork, writing resumes, opening bank accounts, applying for insurance, finding affordable housing. The list could go on and on. Imagine the relief it would be for immigrants to know they’re being patiently and skillfully guided. What a huge ministry!

3. Meet physical needs.

Immigrants often arrive in America with so little. They have only a few of the things they really need. Poverty can become a grind. And, unchecked, it can wear out immigrants and their families, leaving them hopeless and desperate.

Conversely, Christians in America have so much. We have a surplus. And, with a compelling vision and a simple process, churches with hearts for immigrants could stockpile huge amounts of products to share with immigrants in their communities. There is an ample supply of the things you typically think to donate: clothes, shoes, coats, kitchen supplies, toiletries and more. But, when challenged, it’s amazing the big things people will donate: appliances, furniture, vehicles, living space. I’ve learned to never underestimate the generosity of Christians who are shown a need and then challenged to meet it.

4. Befriend.

Can you imagine how lonely you’d be if you moved from your home to a foreign land? Can you imagine being on your own without your family or friends? It would be miserable.

I understand the struggle of some well-intentioned Christians, feeling incapable of making a difference. The large gaps we perceive can leave us feeling unable to help. But, I’ve found that although many immigrants can be shy—they perceive the gap too—they are extremely grateful when others take the initiative to move toward them, to extend an offer of friendship. Immigrants crave the same things we do: love, acceptance, identification, friendship. The next time you have the opportunity, reach out, even if you’re unable to use words. Make a move and see what happens through your act of kindness.

There are literally hundreds of ways churches could minister to the immigrant populations in their communities. They’re only limited by the limits of their creativity.

How awesome would it be if your church—if my church—were to be known as the church for immigrants!

The Bible and the Immigrant Experience

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I’ve recently written that the issue of immigration is provocative to me. A big cause for this is the fact that the immigrant experience is a central theme in the Bible.

The immigrant experience in the Bible

At the core of the Patriarchs’ identity was the experience of being foreigners in a foreign land.

God called Abraham from his native land with the promise that he would go before him and that he would lead him to the land he would one day inherit (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham obeyed and went. God then entered into a covenant with Abraham. In doing so, he promised he would “give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God,” (Genesis 17:8). The only small parcel of land Abraham would own was the burial ground he purchased for his wife (Genesis 23:4). Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. They owned nothing else. Eventually, God would lead the entire family from their campsite in Canaan to what would become bitter slavery in Egypt. Certainly, next to the Promise, the immigrant experience was the most defining feature of life for the Patriarchs.

When God formed his nation, he formed it from a nation of aliens and slaves.

God’s own people toiled in slavery in the land of Egypt for over 400 years (Exodus 1:1-14). They lived in the land as aliens. They were oppressed. Demeaned. Beaten. Without representation. They spoke a different language. Had different customs. Had no formal institution in which to gather and forge an identity. They were prohibited from carrying out their religious ceremonies. They had no rights. Only the faint memory of a promise. Generations came and went until God sent a deliverer, Moses, to wrench them from Pharaoh’s hand and to guide them to freedom. The defining moment of the Exodus, the event that symbolized the birth of the nation of Israel, was the Passover. Whom did Moses include in that first Passover? The children of Abraham, of course. Whom else? Any foreigner living among the Israelites who was willing to identify with the nation (Exodus 12:48-49).

At Sinai, God made provision in the Law for the foreigners who would inhabit the Promised Land beside his people.

God’s instructed Israel to deal fairly with foreigners. Why? Because “you know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9). He even included them in religious activities (Leviticus 17:8). God commanded his people to treat foreigners well and to include them in the life of the nation precisely because they understood and could identify with their plight. They knew what it meant, how it felt and all that was entailed. That empathy was to fuel goodwill and provision, justice and fairness, mercy and compassion.

The Bible is the story of a nation of exiles who are delivered by God himself.

As the story of the nation of Israel unfolds, through a long, looping spiral of devotion and betrayal, repentance and rebellion, eventually God’s people ended up, once again, as foreigners in a strange land. The Old Testament records the sad story of the destruction of the nation, most poignantly seen in the destruction of the Temple, and the deportation of the people. And the New Testament tells the story of how God once and forever provided an end to the exile and oppression under which his people groaned.

He did this by creating a brand new nation, a nation made entirely of aliens and immigrants.

How did he do this? He purchased freedom for all who would depend upon him in faith by means his own death, burial and resurrection. He returned us from exile and created a new nation. This nation isn’t exclusively comprised of people from the nation of Israel. The Church is a gathering of foreigners from all nations, people who are welcomed not as “strangers and foreigners” but as brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 2:19). Then, as Christians go about their business in the world, they do so as “temporary residents and foreigners,” (1 Peter 2:11).

There are several biblical principles—principles that we might be bold enough to embrace—that emerge:

  • To be a Christian is to be a foreigner. Therefore, we ought to be uniquely suited to understand the plight of the foreigners in our communities.
  • To be a Christian is to welcome foreigners because we understand what being a foreigner is like.
  • To be a Christian is to join God, working to bring his justice, mercy and provision to the dispossessed and disenfranchised.
  • To be a Christian is to have a heart that swells with the kind of compassion that leads to action.

If you and I follow Christ, we pledge our allegiance to the highest Authority. In so doing, we alienate ourselves from the world. We look, think and act differently. (If we don’t, we must examine ourselves.) From that humble position, the Church can be the Church and Christians can be Christians—and act in good conscience—no matter what public opinion states, no matter what laws are passed or not passed. If we are living for Christ, we know what it is to be aliens. And, we should be willing to do whatever we can to put that biblical worldview to action for the benefit of those around us.

This is a big challenge to me, personally. And, I hope it’s a challenge my fellow immigrants will take more seriously as well.

The State of Immigration

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Last night, during the State of the Union, President Obama delivered the following words about the state of immigration reform:

Finally, if we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system. … Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let’s get immigration reform done this year. Let’s get it done. It’s time.

I can’t remember a State of the Union address that didn’t include similar comments about immigration reform. The pessimist in me says that it’s simply rhetoric designed to win approval. (And, to be fair, I’ve had this perspective no matter who has been President.) Although I know he’s not a moralist or theologian, I find his statements to provide an interesting cultural commentary. Let’s fix the broken immigration system because it’ll help the economy. OK. I guess. Aren’t there more compelling reasons to fix the system?

I’ve had strong feelings on immigration for some time. They were probably present when I was a teenager, but they certainly solidified when I lived in Mexico City for three months in 1998. While serving at a home for orphans on the outskirts of that massive city, I saw firsthand why our Mexican neighbors are flooding our borders. Many of the families I met (families living in squalor) were being supported by husbands and fathers who were forced to flee to America in search of jobs. After returning to America, I’ve met many men in similar situations who work incredibly hard to sent the vast majority of their earnings to families back home in Mexico.

They don’t call America “the land of opportunity” for nothing.

I’ll be happy when politicians finally agree on how to fix our broken immigration system. But, until then, I’m more challenged by the concept of my role and the American Church’s role in fixing the problem for individuals who have immigrated or who will soon immigrate. What should we do about the issue beyond voting for the right representatives in November. Certainly, there’s more that we can do. I wonder what would happen if the individuals, church leaders and whole congregations would wrestle questions like:

  1. What does the Bible teach about immigration?
  2. What could churches do to help the immigrants in their communities?
  3. What would happen if churches developed direct partnerships with other churches  in places like Mexico, Africa, Eastern Europe or elsewhere?
  4. What thoughts, biases and attitudes are present in my heart that are keeping me from having a godly perspective and taking godly action on this issue?

To me, these are compelling questions, questions to which I intend to return in the near future. I believe they are a massive social justice issue of our time and that churches and Christian individuals have an opportunity to act in a way that redeems the situation and makes God’s glory evident to everyone—no matter where they came here from.