To make room for each other

I’m a grateful dad. I have never had a dream that told me to flee in the middle of the night because it was no longer safe there. I have never had to wake my wife and children after waking up in terror, urging them to get dressed and pack their bags, with little time for explanations, telling them to hurry, to decide quickly what to take, what to leave behind. I have never had an immigration officer knock on the door at six in the morning and take me away from my family to a detention center hundreds of miles away.

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Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and important visitors from the East arrived with expensive gifts, wishing to see the child who had been born king of the Jews, and they paid him homage. Born in the city of David, where would the young Messiah travel next, to Jerusalem? No. The family fled to Egypt because of a king determined to kill in order to secure his rule.

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More than 65 million people in the world today have fled their homes due to war, violence, and persecution; more than at any time since World War II. If these men, women, and children – 51% of them are children – if they were the population of one country, it would rank 22nd in population size between the U.K. and France.[1]

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I wonder if they were warmly received in Egypt, Mary and Joseph with their baby. Did they meet others there who spoke their language? Did Joseph find work? Did they find a home, or did they have to camp out on the edge of town? Did they blend in or did everybody know they were foreigners because of their looks, or their accent? Did they worry about being sent back before it was safe to go back?

Jesus said years later, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35), and with these words he declared his solidarity not just with humanity in general, but particularly with the most vulnerable among us, those who are most dependent on the kindness of others. He reminds us that when we talk about families who don’t have enough to eat or about refugees and immigrants, we talk about him, and when we respond to their needs, we respond to him.

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Nashville’s foreign-born population doubled in the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, from 58,539 to 118,126, becoming 7.4 percent of Nashville’s total population. That number has since increased to 12 percent, meaning more than one in every 10 Nashvillians was born outside the U.S. A lot of them are children; about 30 percent of Metro Schools’ student population from the 2015-16 school year — or just over 25,300 children — learned English as a second language.

Among Nashvillians born outside the U.S. are an estimated 33,000 undocumented residents, including 8,000 who have at least one child that is a U.S. citizen. Of the estimated 11 million immigrants who either entered the U.S. without a visa or overstayed their visa, the majority have lived in the country for a decade or more. Most have children and other family members who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.[2]

The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt conducted a poll in February/March; one of the questions Nashville residents were asked was, “Thinking about the issue of immigration… Which comes closest to your view about undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.?”

  • 12% responded they should be required to leave the U.S.
  • 14% responded they should stay as temporary guest workers.
  • And 70% responded they should stay and apply for citizenship.[3]

I don’t know about you, but I was surprised by that last number. I hear and read a lot about how divided we are, but a number like that—70% of Nashvillians in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.—a number like that tells me there’s plenty of common ground for us to stand on, a lot more, actually, than the angry rhetoric on talk radio or the inaction in Congress would suggest.

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The General Assembly of our church, meeting in July in Indianapolis, will discuss and be asked to approve resolution GA-1723 On Becoming Immigrant Welcoming Congregations. The Elders of our congregation invite us to study and discuss the resolution and its implications for our ministry on Wednesday at 7 in Fellowship Hall. It is not a controversial resolution we would expect to be hotly debated at the assembly, but it is nevertheless demanding. Among other things, it calls all members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. and Canada, to consider

  • engaging in congregational prayer, listening conferences, and action around immigration policies;
  • supporting immigrant families when facing and experiencing separation;
  • helping immigrant families and individuals avoid fraud and obtain credible legal resources and guidance;
  • building solidarity between immigrant and non-immigrant congregations;
  • offering sanctuary protections to immigrants or assisting congregations who do; and
  • educating themselves and others about those immigration policies that support the rights of immigrant families.

The Elders want us to study and discuss this resolution before they consider affirming it, because they want us to understand that it is not just one more declaration—one whereas after another and a couple of be-it-resolved’s—but a commitment to continue the work; a commitment to pray, to study and debate the issues, to offer help and support, and, perhaps most important of all, to wrestle with politically charged issues in ways that build community rather than tear it apart.

Paul Wadell writes,

We live in a world of insiders and outsiders, a world where some are welcome and others are [not]. Human beings are experts at exclusion because we prefer the comfortable and familiar neighbor over the “stranger” whose presence may not only challenge us, but also completely remake our world, which is always a risk with hospitality.[4]

This doesn’t just apply to immigrants or refugees, but to those who feel like strangers in their own country, to every person whose experience of the world differs from our own and whose view of the world may therefore feel almost “foreign” to our own. We live in a time of terror and war, of massive cultural shifts, of violence, distrust, suspicion, fear, and anxiety, and it is no wonder that we seem to talk a lot more about closing rather than opening doors to strangers. “Fear constricts our world,” writes Wadell. “Fear teaches us to pull back, to become wary and disengaged. And fear, fueled by anxiety, teaches us to attend to our own needs before ever considering the needs of others.”[5] But we are not created to be anxious, we are not created for fear and isolation; we are made for each other, for a life of communion in the ever-expanding love of God.

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Love has a lot to do with memory. One of the scripture passages the resolution asks us to think and talk about, says,

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”[6]

You heard it. First, not oppress. Then, the alien shall be to you as the citizen. And finally, you shall love the alien as yourself. And why? Memory. Remember, you were aliens in Egypt, and remember, I am the Lord your God.

Some will say, “We weren’t aliens in Egypt…” As Gentiles, we don’t always know how Israel’s story with God is also ours.

“So then,” writes the Apostle in Ephesians, “remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ … remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

Remember, you were aliens. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. … So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”[7] Knocking down walls, bringing together those who were far off with those who were near, and enlarging the boundaries of the commonwealth, Christ has changed the landscape of our interactions. We are invited into this new space to live in the wide embrace of divine love, the strangers that we were along with those who are strangers to us, and to comprehend together, in the company of all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love.[8]

To love is to make room for another in our lives. God has made room for us. Living in that love, we can’t help but make room for each other. And I can’t think of anything more important for us to do in this day and age, than to make room for each other.

 

[1] The U.K. has a population of 65,511,098, and France, currently ranked 22nd, of64,938,716; see http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-country/

[2] http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2017/05/30/nashville-immigrants-live-in-fear-trump-deportation/341126001/

[3] http://www.vanderbilt.edu/csdi/2ndVanderbiltUniversityPollNashvillefinal.pdf

[4] Paul Wadell, Toward a Welcoming Congregation, 76. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/53384.pdf

[5] Ibid., 78.

[6] Lev 19:33-34; see also Dtn 10:17-19 “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

[7] See Eph 2:11-22

[8] See Eph 3:18

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