there are no strangers here

I come from a lineage of immigrants.

My father and his family left their home in Udine, a town in the northeastern corner of Italy, and made their way to Canada. My mother, born in Edinburgh, Scotland, settled in Canada as well, with her parents and younger sister, when she was only a few years old. I was a first-generation Canadian citizen, born to two naturalized parents.

I myself am an immigrant.

With a few suitcases and a duffle bag, I left Canada when I was 17 years old and hopped on a Greyhound bus to the United States. I settled in Pennsylvania, got a job, went to school, made a life for myself there. I applied for a green card, a long, expensive process that afforded me nearly every right and privilege of an American citizen other than the ability to vote. After over a decade of being a permanent resident, I decided to apply for citizenship. To become a naturalized American, I had to surrender my Canadian citizenship, a necessary sacrifice that pained me at the same time. My interview was conducted by a Citizenship and Immigration Service officer whose father had been a Liberian immigrant. The interview itself was grueling. The file they had on me contained every document I had ever filed since entering the States 13 years previously, as well as tax returns, employment history, and photos of me from border crossings. I had been rigorously vetted; the background check they’d done on me was extensive. At long last, I was sworn in as an American citizen on May 5, 2014, in the Philadelphia USCIS building, amongst a crowd of fellow immigrants, representing over 20 different birth countries.

Immigration is a beautiful thing. It’s what adds flavors and cultures and languages and traditions to our global community. It’s also a hot-button topic in today’s world, especially given the executive order recently given by the current POTUS banning immigration and refugees from seven countries, all predominantly Muslim. Everyone has an opinion on the immigration issue, and I do try to listen to all sides with a rational and open mind. I have bitten my tongue a great many times, and I have stuck my foot in my mouth just as often. It’s a hard issue to discuss. It’s messy, and emotions run high, and there’s always, always, ALWAYS someone who disagrees with you–not always politely. The internet is a place where everyone has an opinion, and everyone has the freedom to express it. I know; I’ve done it. I’ve stuck my neck out, gotten hurt and quickly retreated to lick my wounds. I’ve also commented on things I should have just left alone, knowing it would cause dissension, but foolishly (and perhaps even pridefully) wanting to say my piece anyway.

So please, hear me. I might say things imperfectly sometimes, but I swear, it is with good intentions. Such is the case with this post you’re currently reading.

I am deeply, deeply grateful for immigration, for the opportunities it gave both my ancestors and me. I am a proud American citizen, one who worked incredibly hard to be able to call myself that. I am blessed in every sense of the word by the freedom, security, and resources that have been afforded to me here.

But my citizenship is not defined by the country name displayed on the front of my passport. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20, ESV).

I am an American second but a Christian first, and as such, my allegiance is to a King not of this world. This is why it is so difficult for me to hear fellow believers say things like, “We need to put America first” or “We can’t worry about others until we take care of ourselves”. Doesn’t that seem…I don’t know…backwards? Christ, after all, is not a Republican (or Democrat, for that matter). He’s not American. He’s not a party, he’s not a flag, and he’s not a policy. So where does the idea that America comes first fit into our faith? Shouldn’t the kingdom of God come before patriotism, before nationalism, before any political ideology? Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! And in the kingdom of God, all are welcome. All have a seat at the table. There is mercy and grace for all of us. And all means all.

Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, found in Matthew 20:1-16. Christians often have a hard time with this parable because it runs so counterintuitively to modern culture. (And isn’t that the point? Isn’t the Kingdom known for taking the ways of the world and turning them on their heads?) The parable of the vineyard workers is “certainly good news to the latecomers, but rather disconcerting to those of us who have a strict idea of who’s in and who’s out. You never know what kind of people you’re going to run into at God’s place. You may have to break bread with some who haven’t earned their place at the table the way you have, who haven’t paid their dues the way you have. It’s not fair. The kingdom of God is not fair” (Christian Century). I suspect, if we were honest and searched our hearts, we might see a bit of that mindset hidden in the corners there. Why should we welcome refugees? Why should we let “illegals” stay? It’s not right! It’s not fair! It’s not…safe.

Safe. That’s the other word I see being thrown around in this messy, uncomfortable conversation. We have to keep our country safe. Our borders, our walls, keep us safe. Yes, absolutely, national security is necessary, and there is work to be done. Wise, carefully thought-out policy and regulations have their place here. And yet…where does Christ call us to a life of safety? Isn’t Luke 9:23 the antithesis of safe?

  • If you are going to follow Jesus, you are going to upset some people (Matthew 10:34-36!)
  • If you are going to follow Jesus, you are going to have to lay some things aside (Mark 1:18!)
  • If you are going to follow Jesus, HE will IMPACT every area of your life (Romans 12:1). You cannot pick and choose your areas of surrender when you are abiding in Him.
  • If you are going to follow Jesus, it is going to take a willingness to change the way you think (Romans 12:1-2).
  • If you are going to follow Jesus, it is going to move your heart to care about and reach out to people that He deeply cares for (see Matthew 28:18-20!)  I cannot say I am a follower of Christ and be unconcerned with the things that concern Him. (Perry Noble)

    Safe? “Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)

Where does Christ tell us to think first of our own safety before that of a widow? An orphan? A foreigner?

He doesn’t.

Refugees fleeing from terror does not mean they are terrorists. And an immigrant is “just someone who used to be somewhere else” (Russell Brand). And Muslims may not share our faith in Christ, but they are indeed our neighbors, and Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors; it wasn’t a suggestion. We cannot serve two masters–Jesus said it himself. We cannot worship both God and politics, and we can no longer bow low at the altar of “safety”. Our sense of safety and security does not lie in our government, in a tight border, in a wall constructed to keep the “other” out. It comes from God and his promises, from his deep and unending love, and his assurance of his presence with us for eternity. This is GOOD news! And so, I need to ask… have we allowed our fear to overshadow our faith?

These are not easy questions. They do not have easy answers; I know this. But I believe Christianity today is not an easy road. And in moments like this, I find myself clinging to the words of one of my favorite authors, the beloved Ragamuffin himself, Brennan Manning: “The life of Jesus suggests that to be like Abba is to show compassion.” I want the life of Elena to suggest the same. And so I’ll throw open my arms and throw open my doors and I’ll look at my neighbors–my black neighbors, my brown neighbors, my poor neighbors, my immigrant neighbors, my LGBTQ neighbors, my refugee neighbors, my Muslim neighbors, my neighbors discarded by society out of fear and hatred–and I will tell them, “You are welcome here.”

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