“We’re working with immigrants.” I cringe almost every time I have to say it so bluntly. My wife and I are in the Bronx now, working with diaspora people groups in the Five Boroughs of New York. And yes, we’re primarily working with immigrants; and it is such a large work to be done:
The total global diaspora numbers about 859 million from 327 distinct people groups. A larger number of those peoples settle in the US than in any other host country, making about 11% of the US population foreign born. It’s an incredible chance to share the message of Jesus and to form cross-cultural relationships which more genuinely reflect something deeply important about the Kingdom of God. In major cities like New York, but also in unexpected places like my hometown of Amarillo, there exist significant pockets of immigrant people groups who we can no longer think of as “those others over there.” They’re our neighbors, and Jesus says we’re supposed to love our neighbors.
But they’re also immigrants, and that term carries an embarrassing weight in our culture. That’s why I cringe. It seems like in celebrating our great opportunity to share the gospel, that now I’ve planted myself in the middle of a political debate. Where I come from, calling someone an immigrant implies an abhorrent “otherness;” our media is not kind in its portrayal of those from around the world who seek asylum behind its walls. We are surrounded by narratives of nationalism which seek to make us afraid of those who don’t look like us and don’t come from where we do. And let me be the first to confess: my gospel at times has been co-opted. But let me also confess that I want to redeem my sinful and stingy imagination. Let us see if we can’t remember an alternative narrative, and if we might not reclaim the deep resonances and reverence scripture caries for the immigrant.
It starts with Abraham. God chose a family and made them migrants. They didn’t know where they were immigrating to, but they remained vagrant into the fourth generation before settling in Egypt. God’s immigrants stayed there for 400 years, but always as a second class people. They remained aliens and foreigners even in this land. And God brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and they became migrants in the desert for two generations.
Their understanding of transience is reflected in the law God gives them: “You shall not oppress the alien, for you know the heart of an alien” (Ex. 23.9); “The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens” (Lv. 19.34); “The Lord your God is God of gods..who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the foreigner…You shall also love the foreigner for you were foreigners” (Duet. 10.19).
And Israel’s failure to follow this specific command is listed highly in the prophets among the reasons for their exile, “I will draw near to you for judgement, I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers…against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me” (Mal. 3.5).
The great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king was an immigrant, and Matthew lists four immigrant women in the genealogy of Jesus. Because it is among a diaspora minority that the Messiah was born and he, himself, became an African refugee to Egypt before he was even old enough to know the land of his birth. The same Messiah sent his disciples among all the nations of the world as migrant minorities; and it was through a network of immigrants like Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, and Apollos that the church spread through the dominant empire.
The story of scripture and the narrative of God’s people is an immigrant’s tale. God’s people are always called to be strangers, aliens, foreigners in a spiritual sense, but they’re also called to look out for and care for those who are literal migrants in their midst as they themselves are often migrants.
So it seems that perhaps we in the Western church have been guilty of letting our culture speak where scripture has already spoken. It seems that we have exchanged the narrative of a God who is creating one people from every tongue and tribe, to a God who favors our tribe: a gospel that sounds like the story the rest of the world tells. It seems that as the nations of the world come to us, we must be challenged to remember that God has called us to be a blessing to and to make disciples of all nations.