Welcoming the Stranger

Mariachi Agape - worship leaders - CICW

At the present moment, here in the United States, but not just here in the States, a spirit is on the arise. May I call it a demonic spirit? It is actually two related spirits, the spirits of nationalism and nativism. The debate over extending protection from deportation for hundreds of thousands of young adults who were brought here as children by parents who either came into the country without documentation or who overstayed visas has been front and center. In fact, it was brought into the debate over passing a debt extension. Much of the debate about immigration and welcoming refugees is related to the ever present demon of nativism. This demon isn't new. It's been with us for a very long time, perhaps from the beginning of the Republic. And, it is rearing its head at this moment. In fact, I learned something interesting at a seminar I attended recently (described below). Nativism tends to rear its head when the foreign born population reaches the 15% mark. We saw this at the beginning of the 20th century. We've seen it arise again. Nativism is the fear of the foreigner. We have seen politicians prey upon fears of the others, especially those whose ethnicity/race is not of European stock (sometimes Asian immigrants are given a pass, due to their being dubbed by some as honorary whites. This is a status that undermines and devalues Asian Americans). 

With this as the background I had the opportunity this past week to attend the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I participated in a seminary while there titled "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in Christian Worship and Life." We heard from five panelists. Cheryl Bear spoke for indigenous communities in Canada and the United States. She reminded us that immigrants from Europe never asked for permission to dwell on the lands of the First Nations. We heard from Jaewoo Kim, a Korean American, about the status of refugees. Jenny Yang, also Korean American, spoke about the immigration debate. Amgad Beblawi spoke about Christian communities in the Middle East (I'll note that I sat at table during the session with three Egyptian Protestant pastors). Finally, Gerardo Marti, a sociologist and of Cuban descent, spoke about Latino Protestants in America (I later attended a workshop focusing on Latino Protestant Churches, which Gerardo was one of three presenters).  To say that this was enlightening would be an understatement. 

One thing that was noted, which needs to be kept in mind, is that stereotypes need to be avoided. Not all immigrant/refugee experiences are the same, nor are the people the same. As we remember that immigrants and refugees are not an issue, they are people, we also need to remember that the relationship should be mutually transformative. Sometimes churches see themselves only as host and not as recipient. This takes away the ability of those who are immigrants and refugees to express themselves as hosts (and many of them are desirous of taking on the role of host).

Gerardo noted that we all seem to know what the Bible has to say about welcoming the stranger. We may believe it. We may even practice it on Sunday morning. The problem is that we tend to distinguish between church and the rest of our lives. Thus, we need to address the nativist fears that foreigners are diluting white American values. We demand assimilation, suggesting that earlier generations of immigrants did just that. They assimilated? Perhaps they did, but remember that an earlier nativist movement pointed to Southern Europeans as being the problem. That the President spoke of Norwegians as good immigrants, as opposed to those who came from Africa or Haiti (despite the fact that most immigrants from those countries are actually more educated than the average American) is a good example of this fear of taking away from white dominance. 

There was and is much to learn. I share just a few anecdotes from my being part of this conversation. As a white male cisgender heterosexual person, I recognize the privileges that are directed my way, but again, I have much to learn. I will close this conversation by taking note of a word shared with us by Cheryl Bear, a person of indigenous ancestry. That word is this: why should we expect Americans to treat immigrants well, when we failed to treat indigenous peoples with respect. Again, my ancestors didn't ask permission to enter the land. We didn't learn the values of the First Peoples, one of which was to care for the land.  To our detriment, we have failed to respect our hosts, and have failed to learn the lessons of a people who dwelt in the land before most of our ancestors arrived in this place.     

To conclude, I share the Identity statement of my denomination. It echoes what I heard this past week: :We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us." It is at the Table that Jesus welcomes us all into God's presence. 


Anonymous said…
One of your points really resonated with me. Living in a mostly Caucasion community I taught in a school in an area with a racial diversity unlike the rest of the town. I remember our principal telling us that we were often referred to as "the black school". Our school make-up? 85% white and 15% African-American and Hispanic.

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