The immigrants in our midst are anxious. My husband and I serve an urban, multiethnic church in Baltimore, Maryland, with members from a dozen nations, and some of these friends are nearly in a panic. They wonder if it is safe to stay in the U.S. Whether they hold green cards, are naturalized citizens, or lack documentation, they note an uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks since our last election.
Jesus — Himself a refugee when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt — equates our treatment of the vulnerable with our treatment of Him.
They feel fear even in our church, which regularly preaches about racial and ethnic reconciliation and has leaders from Chad, Sri Lanka, Cuba, and other nations. One immigrant wonders if her leadership on a team was challenged “because I am African and won’t complain.” Seemingly innocent questions such as, “Do you plan to continue your career in the U.S.?” are scrutinized for an undercurrent of resentment: Was the questioner really asking, Why are you taking jobs that should be filled by Americans? Perhaps in a less politically heated climate, my friends would shrug off remarks like these rather than interpret them as microaggressions.
One of our church elders, who is a naturalized citizen from East Asia, mentioned the recent attack on two Indian engineers at a bar in Kansas. A white patron heckled two Indian patrons with anti-immigrant remarks and shot them, killing one. “This is not an isolated incident,” my elder insists, and I believe him.
The increase in overt attacks reflects an increasingly toxic climate that poisons other interactions. When an East Indian woman is verbally abused in traffic by another driver, is this anti-immigrant sentiment, boorish behavior, or both? When my Nigerian friend’s daughter is taunted by a classmate who says that the President “is going to kick you out of the country,” is this updated schoolyard bullying? And will it escalate?
In the midst of a global refugee crisis, American followers of Jesus have the opportunity to practice hospitality — not hostility — and demonstrate sacrificial love and biblical faithfulness. The author of the book of Hebrews calls us to philoxenia, which means “the love of strangers.”
But unfortunately, a recent Pew research poll reveals that three-quarters of responders who identify themselves as white evangelicals aren’t interested in welcoming certain strangers, particularly new refugees from Syria and others from seven Muslim-majority countries.
God’s Heart for the Immigrant
God clearly cares about this issue. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word ger — usually translated as “foreigner,” “alien,” or “sojourner” — appears almost 100 times. In his 2010 book, “Generous Justice,” author and pastor Tim Keller argues that this should be translated as “immigrant.” God reminds His people, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Deuteronomy 10:19 states, “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” The prophets rail against injustice toward foreigners and other vulnerable members of society, as Zechariah writes, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10).
Jesus — Himself a refugee when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s paranoid killing of baby boys — equates our treatment of the vulnerable with our treatment of Him. “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me. … Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-40). In His first sermon, Jesus is nearly tossed out of the synagogue and thrown off a cliff because He asserts that God loves foreigners, not just the Jewish nation (Luke 4). And as the role model in His parable defining who is a good neighbor, Jesus chose a member of a hated ethnic group — Samaritans (Luke 10).
It Costs Us Something to Care
Nonprofit religious organizations such as World Relief and Catholic Charities have decades of experience partnering with churches to help refugees and immigrants. Many churches have responded by sponsoring families, raising funds, and offering free English as a Second Language classes. But because of U.S. plans to reduce refugee resettlement through 2017, World Relief recently was forced to lay off 140 experienced staff members and close five regional offices — offices that have resettled more than 25,000 refugees during the past 40 years. Tim Breene, CEO of World Relief, lamented that “America is now less able to help those around the world who need our help the most.”
Perhaps God stressed welcoming the immigrant over and over because it costs us something. The investment of time, energy, and resources to care for the least of these may not come naturally. But followers of Christ must speak up. We know — or must remember — that America is a nation of immigrants. Seventy percent of immigrants are here legally, but pastor Rick Warren notes, “A good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person. ‘Are you legal or illegal?’” Can we heed the commands of God, the cries of the prophets, and the call which Jesus Himself affirmed in His words and actions? Our faith compels us to extend love and welcome to immigrants, whatever the cost.