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Time for Lent: Immigration

NBC is airing a new TV series called Who Do You Think You Are? that follows celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Emmitt Smith as they trace their family lineages.[1] A voice-over line in the introduction reminds us, “To know who you are, you have to know where you came from.”

Who are you? Where is your family from? Where are your roots? Why did your ancestors come to the United States? What struggles at home motivated them to start a new life? Did they come by choice, or were they forced to land on these shores as Emmitt Smith’s distant relatives did? What challenges did they have to overcome when creating their new stories here? What hopes and dreams fueled their efforts?

This installment in the Lenten series on giving our time to work for peace and justice is about immigration, about foreigners facing hardship and creating better lives. However, this article is not about determining U.S. immigration policy. Instead, it is a celebration of the rich heritage of our collective roots.[2]

One branch of my family tree goes back to Ukraine. These Lutheran Germans-from-Russia immigrated to the U.S. in 1899 to avoid military conscription into the Russian military. Some fifteen years later my grandfather was born in Idaho, and when he was old enough to start school in the early 1920s, he was beaten up because he couldn’t speak English. Although his father had learned English by this time, his mother had immigrated more recently, so the family spoke only German at home.

On the other side of my family tree, Seventh-day Adventist relatives emigrated from Sweden when Lutherans there made life difficult for members of other denominations. Religious freedom was the carrot that drew them here.

While the Bible does warn us not to study genealogies endlessly,[3] God understands the power that memory and identity have on our social ethics. As the Israelites were preparing to leave the wilderness and enter Canaan, Moses established the liturgy of remembering, and not just remembering, but remembering well. When offering firstfruits before the Lord, the worshipers were to declare their history:

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt…. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer…. Then we cried out to the LORD… and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt…. to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.”[4]

To end the ceremony, the firstfruit offering was given to the Levites and foreigners. Moses followed this ceremonial description with a further teaching—the tithe every third year would be for the “Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow.”[5] In essence, the memory of being mistreated in a foreign land would be the nation’s motivation to provide for the needs of future foreigners who would immigrate into their communities. Memory would guide ethics.

Now that we have been grafted into the vine, we carry not only the stories from our families, but also from the heritage of the text. We are called to “love those who are aliens.”[6] Our ancestors were mistreated; therefore, we will be sure to take care of foreigners among us. How can we do this as individuals and as congregations?

First, we can be patient with people who are not fluent in English. Last year a young friend of ours from South Korea graduated from an Adventist academy in Michigan. When his mother flew over for commencement weekend, my wife and I took the two of them shopping. I was infuriated when someone walked by them and said, “You’re in America. Speak English.” The mother had not even been here a full weekend yet.

Second, we can get to know our immigrant neighbors and foreign coworkers. “Our society is structured in such a way that you can live in the same community as thousands of immigrants and never know any of their names, with barriers of language, culture, race and economic status dividing us. Only when we begin to personally know our immigrant neighbors can we begin to contemplate the biblical mandate to love them.”[7]

Third, we can volunteer with local agencies that support immigrants and refugees. Your local chapter of the United Way can connect you with religious groups or humanitarian agencies who are actively caring for immigrants in your area.

Finally, congregations can also “love the alien” by providing physical resources, offering instruction in American life-skills, or co-sponsoring a refugee family through Church World Service.[8]

[1] Watching the episode about Emmitt Smith helped get me in a good mental place to begin writing this post.

[2] At the same time, I have to acknowledge the degree to which immigration destroyed the communities of Native Americans. I do not claim to know how to make any peace between my heritage and the first few chapters of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I also think of John Reuben’s song, “What about Them?”

[3] 1 Timothy 1:4

[4] Deuteronomy 26:5-10.

[5] Deuteronomy 26:12.

[6] Deuteronomy 10:18-19 & Leviticus 19:34.

[7] Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 178.

[8] Church World Service. For additional ideas, see Zealous Love (Yankoski & Yankoski, 2009, pp. 77-103) and Everybody Wants to Change the World (Campolo & Aeschliman, 2006, pp. 137-148).

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