How Do You Respond To Immigrants?

Written by Rob Rutland-Brown, Executive Director.

One of our activities is to engage with religious communities to understand immigration issues from a faith perspective.  The following is information I used to promote thought and discussion among church groups.

This past October, the Bishop of the Florida United Methodist Annual Conference, Ken Carter, gave a lecture on immigration.[1] He asked how we respond to immigrants, and wrestled with the issues that many of us face as we encounter those of backgrounds different from our own and as immigration changes our culture.  Below is an excerpt from his lecture.
So how do we respond to immigrants among us? I came across these words recently. “Few of their children in the country learn English. The signs in our streets have…both languages….Unless the stream could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious”.   Who said that? Not a commentator in the twenty-four hour news cycle. Benjamin Franklin, complaining about the Germans who were arriving in Pennsylvania in the 1750s. We forget, don’t we, that every one of us was once an immigrant.[2]

Immigration is changing our culture, but immigration is nothing new.   One of my favorite Psalms is 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion”.  It is a moving statement about what it is like to be far from home, to be disoriented and dislocated.   It helps us to reflect on the experience of being a stranger in a strange land. Our economy requires immigrant labor, and yet its shadow side is the lived experience of our neighbors: separation of family members, living outside systems of protection from domestic violence, fear of deportation, and lack of access to freedoms that many of us take for granted. As Jim Wallis has noted, it is as if the United States is holding up two conflicting signs, simultaneously: “”No Trespass” and “Help Wanted”.[3]

The 137th Psalm is a moving statement about what it is like to be far from home, to be disoriented and dislocated.   Embedded in this psalm (poetry, prayer, protest) are a range of emotions: trauma, lament, rage, confusion. It is of course a text that is often marginalized by the church; in some traditions that have responsive readings of the psalms, portions of the text are excised; in traditions that are lectionary based, it is paired with a reading from Lamentations 1, and in my own church, it is placed on World Communion Sunday; in listening to my wife reflect on this text recently, it certainly gives voice to many Christians and Jews around the world who share a collective grief and lamentation. 

The research about migrant populations is startling in this respect. Christians comprise nearly half of the world’s migrants, around 106 million people, and they make up 61% of immigrants coming into the United States. Unauthorized immigrants in our country, coming mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, are 83% Christian.[4]

The process of migration and immigration includes the impetus to leave the known in a journey toward the unknown. There is separation from family, loss of security and familiarity, immersion in danger, uncertainty and exploitation, and settling into the unfamiliar and overwhelming newness of the destination. These, our brothers and sisters have much to teach us about what it must be like to be strangers in a strange land. And if the church, in its evangelical, mainline and catholic expressions, is going to be vital, our brothers and sisters will teach us to sing the Lord’s song in in this strange land. 

Have you ever been in a situation in which you felt like a stranger in a strange land?  What was intimidating, and what comforted you?

How can we face changes in our culture with more openness?  How can we welcome newcomers to our community and to our country? 

  [1] Full text of lecture can be found at http://www.floridaconferenceconnection.info/blogs/detail/492
[2]Kenneth C. Davis, “The Founding Immigrants”, New York Times, July 3, 2007.
[3]Jim Wallis, On God’s Side (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2013), p. 83.
[4]“The Religious Affiliation of U.S. Immigrants: Majority Christian, Rising Share of Other Faiths”, Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Report, 2012, p. 2.   www.pewforum.org.