What if You Were an Immigrant?
A contentious debate over immigration has raged in America, Europe and Asia for quite some time. In the United States, at least four different presidential administrations have grappled unsuccessfully with the issue. Recently emotions and concerns—especially online—soared to new heights with the partial closing of the American federal government over the issue.
How should disciples of Jesus Christ respond?
I personally hold a deep sensitivity to this continuing divisive issue. Allow me to put this in context.
As I have previously noted, at the age of two, I migrated to the United States with my parents from a United Nations refugee camp in Hannover, Germany. Before I was born, my parents suffered as slave workers in Nazi Germany. Amidst the devastated carnage following the end of hostilities, they found themselves homeless. They—like multiple thousands of desperate immigrants today—anxiously and legally sought refuge in the free world.
Back then, as it is today, America represented a beckoning beacon of freedom and prosperity. How prosperous is this country? Consider this fact: American citizens comprise about 5 percent of the global population. But this 5 percent of the world’s 7.5 billion people alive today consumes more than 50 percent of world’s finished goods. America is truly blessed by God. No other country in human history—whether in victory or peace—has been as prosperous or as generous as America.
So, for upwards of a century America has stood as a preferred refuge for people living in poverty, in war-torn countries, and in hopeless situations. And as the poem on the Statute of Liberty in New York reads: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I am profoundly grateful for that status, because—like many others in the United Church of God—I am an immigrant to the United States of America! I was once one of those “tempest-tossed” who had no assured future. I daily thank God that after many crushing disappointments, my parents were miraculously granted a last-minute sponsorship to come to America with me, their infant son.
With that as a background, I ask this: when we in the United Church of God express our opinions online or in public, let’s remember and consider that there are other immigrants who for different reasons have made the United States their home and today are members of our church.
Let’s remember that immigration currently is a “hot button” issue in Europe and America. There is a big push of refugees from the south on both the Mexican/American border as well as from Africa and the Middle East into Europe. There are other areas of horribly unfortunate and abused people such as in Myanmar in Asia seeking relief.
Let’s remember that there are some successful immigration stories, but there are also horrendous stories of people suffering terribly as they flee oppression or war. You’ve probably seen accounts of children and adults capsizing and drowning as they struggle to cross the Mediterranean Sea in small boats. Some make it only to be picked up by those who dehumanize them and drive them into the human slave market. Young girls are being forced into prostitution while men are put into demeaning jobs with no future.
What if you were a suffering immigrant like these people? What would you do?
For sure, unsavory people with the intent to do evil slip in with otherwise legitimate refugees, later wreaking havoc in their new host countries. But these are a minority.
I am very sensitive to all of this in today’s world. Growing up in an immigrant community in St. Paul, Minnesota, I recall the demeaning stigma we felt as non-American refugees. We were mockingly called “DPs” for “displaced persons.” People ridiculed the broken English of my parents. Our family spoke the Ukrainian language at home and I did not speak English until I started kindergarten.
I know firsthand how hard it can be to assimilate and become a member of American society, even when one is a legal immigrant!
I grew up listening to traumatic, tear-filled and heart-rending stories of war, death, and permanent separation from parents and family. My parents would receive letters from their parents and siblings in Ukraine, their homeland. They would openly cry as they read the letters aloud to us. Back then, we as children could not fully comprehend. Grim understanding came later.
So back to my original question: How should disciples of Jesus Christ respond? How do we in the Church react to the question of migration and immigration? Immigration—whether in America, Europe or Asia—represents a difficult situation with no single answer. The solution has eluded the best minds and intentions for many years. What do we do?
First, our mindset should rise above human politics. On Facebook and other social media people may “endorse” candidates and encourage people to vote and support them. As employees, elders, and members, we must be careful what we post on social media. We are seen as representatives of the United Church of God and our words impact the church’s reputation! If we’re not careful, we can inadvertently pass on dubious statistics or semi-facts. Those actions are noticed. Those words can negatively change perceptions of the church and what we believe. Further, it is easy to find posts that brag about American heritage, with the post authors apparently blissfully unaware that (apart from Native Americans) every single American citizen alive today has some tie (past or current) to an immigrant story or family coming to the United States.
Second, the Bible teaches us to respect government officials, regardless of party. Paul emphatically directs us to “give respect and honor to those who are in authority” (Romans 13:7 Romans 13:7Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
American King James Version×, New Living Translation). When Paul wrote this to the Romans, the Emperor Nero was in power, who openly persecuted the disciples of Jesus in Rome. It wasn’t easy then, and it may not be easy now. Openly bashing elected officials with unmitigated sarcasm undermines respect.
Third, we must communicate in a godly manner. The Bible doesn’t say we can’t have a personal opinion or that we deny our thoughts on contemporary issues. But we are instructed thusly: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29 Ephesians 4:29Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers.
American King James Version×, English Standard Version, emphasis added).
Here’s the critical point: do our words and comments simply inflame a debate that has no ready answer? How important is our answer? As Jesus Himself declares, “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37 Matthew 12:37For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.
American King James Version×, ESV).
I plan to write further about this important issue, but I would like to close this column with one final personal story. My niece, who is a college instructor, recently wrote to me. A very kind, articulate and caring person, she is well aware that I am the president of the United Church of God.
She asked: “As the leader of a church, should you not speak out against Mr. Trump? Don’t you see how he treats women? Do you not see how he treats the humanitarian crisis of refugees?”
I told her that I didn’t and don’t endorse Mr. Trump, but I respect those who are in authority. I told her that I didn’t vote for any presidential candidate in 2016. Since she knows my background, I used the opportunity to explain how I supported a future world Ruler who is coming to establish the Kingdom of God, a global government that will truly solve today’s refugee immigration crisis.
To be sure, the Church’s stance is not denying or shrinking away from the reality of what we see in the world. Jesus commanded us to watch and observe that we may be spiritually prepared (Luke 21:36 Luke 21:36Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
American King James Version×). But sometimes our focus on biblical values can be misconstrued as those of a conservative political bent, so we must take care not to inadvertently fall in step with certain political views and their consequences. We can also inadvertently hurt our own spiritual brothers and sisters with harsh words.
What’s our role? We have the opportunity to do good in this regard, whether it be fervently praying for those less fortunate than us, or outright serving where we can (which is one of the reasons my wife, Bev, and I are involved in LifeNets, even helping refugees directly—see http://www.lifenets.org/ukraine/crisis.htm).
I plan to write further on this topic. In the interim, let us be sensitive to those in crisis and let us pursue peace (Hebrews 12:14 Hebrews 12:14Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:
American King James Version×). Remember, the vast majority of those presently suffering in the immigration crisis will one day be citizens eternally together with us in the coming Kingdom of God!