Pastor Jim Melvin
How would you write the story of your origins in a few sentences? Mine would go something like this. “My father was a coal miner born in Southern Illinois who moved to Iowa as a young man to build a better life where he met my mother, the child of hardworking German immigrants who came to America also seeking a better life.” Variations of that story could be told by millions of Americans.
Near the end of their forty-year Exodus wandering in the wilderness, Moses reminded the children of Israel of their story of origins. They were to recite this story when they entered the land flowing with milk and honey and make it a part of their worship forever. These words were to be said in the temple on Shavuot each year as the harvest offering was presented,
“A wandering Aramean was my father,
he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,
he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon
they became a great nation, mighty and many.
The Egyptians abused and battered us,
in a cruel and savage slavery.
We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:
He listened to our voice, he saw
our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.
And God took us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,
with signs and miracle-wonders.
And he brought us to this place,
gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits
of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.”
That wandering Aramean was Abraham the ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. All of us who identify with these three “Abrahamic” faiths have in our past been called aliens, immigrants, foreigners and refugees. Whether we are Jewish or not, in our settled and secure lives we should regularly recite these words so that we remain appropriately thankful for our blessings.
We are not indigenous people. We are all, to use the language of ecology, invasive species. All of us sre immigrants to whom God has granted a resting place on our journey. We thank God for that. We show our thanks by acknowledging those who still wander in the wilderness waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise of a homeland. The children of Israel were required by their own religious law in their sacred scripture to not only welcome but to care for the dispossessed strangers whose wanderings brought them to their land. Here are some of those references,
“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“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.” Leviticus 19:34
“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do this. Deuteronomy 24:17-22
And in Jesus’ description of the final judgement, God says to those whom he welcomes into his kingdom,
“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35
For a variety of reasons including war, political oppression, drug violence, and drought and famine caused by climate change, we are witnessing massive shifts of human populations on an unprecedented scale. Today more than 70 million people are displaced from their homes including 6.7 million in Syria, 2.7 million in Afghanistan, 2.3 million in South Sudan, 1.1 million in Myanmar, and .9 million in Somalia. There are about 5 million Palestinian refugees, of which 1.5 million live in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Closer to home, there are 4.5 million refugees from Venezuela and 650,000 asylum seekers from that country. The list goes on.
It is no wonder that we who live in America and people of other developed and prosperous nations feel a need for self-protection. The flood of humanity seeking a secure place to call home is overwhelming and seems to threaten our way of life. That does not, however, absolve us of our biblical call and the demands of our basic humanity to help our neighbors. The scale of the refugee crises should create a sense of urgency among us.
America has a long history of welcoming refugees to our shores. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants and refugees. But it has never been easy. Even after the horrors of the Nazi holocaust were exposed through graphic pictures to the American people as the concentration camps were liberated, few Americans were in favor of increasing the number of Jewish refugees allowed to our own shores. Still, we have found the courage and the will to help the dispossessed. For the past 40 years we have led the world in the number of refugees whom we have resettled in some years topping 100,000.
In the past few years, however, that number has been reduced to under 30,000 per year. In other words, the number of refugees and the number that we are accommodating are diverging. Once again, we find ourselves struggling to balance our self-protective instincts with our call to sacrificial love. It is time for us as people of God to seriously align our personal advocacy and our governmental policies with our religious and humanitarian obligations.
One of the greatest obstacles that we face in dealing with the immigrant and refugee crisis is our own fear. We fear that that immigrants will bring with them crime. We fear that terrorists will arrive in their midst. We fear that they will overwhelm are welfare, healthcare, and welfare systems. We fear that they will alter our culture and even our language. We fear that instead of us raising them up, that they will drag us down.
These are all legitimate concerns, but America has faced great challenges in her past and met them with integrity and moral courage. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged the American people in his first inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And Jesus reminded his followers, “Have no fear little flock. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32
We can only put aside our fears by first committing ourselves to work together. In the polarized environment in which we find ourselves, we cast the people with whom we should be working to solve problems as our enemies. We are wasting most of our time and energy attacking each other rather than attacking the problem. We don’t have the time and energy to spare.
Here is my simple proposal for a commitment that each of us can make as we seek to deal with the plight of immigrants and refugees in America:
1) I will listen to and acknowledge the fears of my fellow citizens and treat them with respect so that we make seek solutions together.
2) I will not use the language of hate nor be triggered by sarcastic attacks on immigrants, refugees or people who are labeled as other.
3) I will live out my biblical and moral mandate to care for the alien, the immigrant, the stranger, and the refugee in our midst.
4) I will seek to educate myself on the religious, social, political and moral issues to the best of my ability seeking out reliable and objective sources of information.
5) I will always remember my own humble origins and thank God for how I am blessed to live and prosper in this land.
My father was a wandering Aramean. So was yours.