Jesus the Immigrant
by Louise Westfall
I met Theuang and Seuang Kavanh almost 40 years ago, when the church I served in rural Iowa sponsored them and their eight children in that time when thousands of “boat people,” who had assisted the US government during the Vietnam War fled persecution and resettled in America. A church member generously made a large house available, rent-free. We enrolled the kids in public schools, and found work for Mr. Kavanh as a house painter. He quickly distinguished himself as a careful and excellent craftsman and earned enough to provide for the growing family. The children learned English quickly, though they also spoke Laotian at home.
Carlos and Marina Quijano and their three children were able to escape El Salvador, after Carlos was identified as a labor organizer seeking worker justice during the corrupt Duarte regime. They came to Chicago through a religious organization and were sponsored by another Iowa congregation I served. They were undocumented because our government didn’t recognize the “well-founded fear of persecution” required for refugee status, so the family lived in the church building for a time and then in a nearby rental.
Carlos was an experienced car mechanic and was able to find employment. I remember the irony we all felt when the elementary-school-aged children were asked to bring quarters to school for a national project to repair the Statue of Liberty. Eventually we helped them move to Canada where they have lived and thrived for the past two decades.
Melamyku Segu’s husband died of cancer in their native country of Ethiopia and with no other family support, she immigrated to the United States in search of greater opportunity to lead a flourishing life. It was difficult to learn English, and she took many English-as -a-Second-Language classes before feeling confident to apply for a job as a waiter in an Ethiopian restaurant in her adopted city of Cleveland. Mel—as she asked us to call her–was a committed Christian, church member, and always made the yeasty flatbread called “injera” for World Communion Sunday.
I’ll never forget the testimony of the ones I call the “feisty women of Aleppo,” part of the Christian church serving amid the violence of the Syrian civil war. So many displaced persons have come through their doors they have had to expand their typical mission activities to include grief and trauma counseling, housing assistance, and education since many of the public schools have closed. When they realized the number of war widows being served, they organized a “sewing circle” in which these refugees crafted items the church sold to US partner churches, providing a source of income to the women.
More recently, Central members Andy and Sherry Kenney, Rob and Celeste Habiger, and Jo Culbertson have traveled to the Mexican/US border to gain better understanding of the immigrant situation there. They’ve spoken of the troubling conditions of the camps and family separations, the dangerous passage across the Sonoran desert, and the stories they’ve heard about why these refugees leave their native lands in the first place.
Long ago and far away, the baby whose birth we have so recently celebrated became an immigrant. Here’s how and why. A reading from Matthew in the second chapter at the thirteenth verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church. [Matthew 2:13-15]
A recurring meme showed up on my Facebook page during Advent. It was described as a “Nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans, or refugees,” and it was simply an empty stable except for a sheep, a cow and a donkey. We can never forget that the narrative of how God came “in the flesh” is a story of immigrants.
Long ago and far away, the baby whose birth we have so recently celebrated became an immigrant.
We can never kneel at the manger with hearts full of devotion without remembering that sometime after Jesus’ birth, his family was on the lam, escaping the murderous intent of a jealous ruler. Others did not get out safely, and the “slaughter of innocents” which followed is part of the birth narrative we might prefer to forget.
But we can’t, because some two millennia later, immigration–and the reasons for it–are an increasing part of the landscape. In 2019, an unprecedented 70.8 million people have become forcibly displaced worldwide, and 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict or persecution, according to the United Nations. [UN High Commissioner for Refugees, June 20, 2019] It’s impossible for me to get my head wrapped around those numbers except through the stories of individuals and families represented by them.
My mother’s people were known as “shanty Irish”–poor rural farmers who immigrated to the US during the Irish Potato Famine, when economic conditions were bleak in Ireland. America was a shining symbol of new beginnings and outsized opportunity. They settled in southern Ohio and worked hard to carve out a new life for themselves and their descendants. Somewhere along the way, they abandoned their Roman Catholic roots and took on the Methodism of the small towns in which they thrived. I’ll bet we’ve got some other good stories here. So scoot a little closer to the people around you and share some of what you know of your family’s background. [CONVERSATION]
Immigrants bring some of their native traditions with them, and the Christmas carols we’re singing this morning are just a few of the contributions from others. The big exception that must be stated is reflected in the two African carols we’ll sing later. African peoples were not immigrants; they did not travel to the US willingly, but were forced here as slave labor. Christianity in Africa represents the missionary efforts of primarily the 19th century, which has its own checkered history of positive and negative aspects. The two carols we’ll sing are 20th century compositions and emphasize Jesus’ ministry to the poor and “outsiders,” set to the simple tunes and “walking” rhythm of their respective cultures. Music is but one of the many meaningful contributions of immigrants. Check in with those around you again to identify others–cuisine, fashion, language, architecture, and more. [CONVERSATION]
I’ve heard it said sometimes that we shouldn’t “preach politics” in church. I’m grateful to live in a country in which church and state are separated by Constitutional mandate. Yet I also realize that the demands of faith claim a higher loyalty and obedience than those of the state. It is not “preaching politics” to say that people fleeing violence and persecution deserve humane treatment and a fair opportunity to seek asylum. It is not “preaching politics” to speak against inhumane conditions at the border between Mexico and the US–forced separation of children from parents, lack of medical care, prolonged detention, and measures to slow down the asylum application process. And it is not “preaching politics” to note the contradictions between current US policy and the biblical exhortations of both Old and New Testaments to care for the immigrant as a prime expression of devotion to God.
I’m asking us instead to bring our faith to bear on the many dimensions of immigration today: by advocating for policies and practices that acknowledge our common humanity; engaging in efforts to address root causes in countries with high numbers of citizens fleeing; insisting on humane treatment of persons who have already immigrated; calling for a just process for asylum seekers. Even questioning whether the image (let alone expense) of “a wall” represents our nation’s values to welcome the “tired and poor and tempest-tossed,” and our faith’s command to welcome the stranger as the brother and sister that they are.
The Presbytery of Denver has responded to these dimensions by forming an Immigration Task Force, focusing on education, accompaniment, and advocacy. Please let me know if you are intrigued by this work, and would like more information.
Rob and Celeste gave me permission to mention their Christmas letter which narrates their year through the lens of a Scripture text: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. [Hebrews 13:1,2] “We have all been strangers,” they wrote, so “may we always welcome strangers as children of God.”
Friends, may it be so, in the name of Jesus the immigrant, our light and life.