Jan 17, 2024
As the national debate over immigration rages, Conference Minister offers this pastoral message.
Dear friends in Christ,
Last year, more than 2,500 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Although governments and humanitarian relief organizations fund rescue operations and resettlement efforts, a growing intolerance of global migration has fueled deep divisions around the world. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European nations have taken in 6 million displaced Ukrainians. During the dozen years of civil war in Syria, 6.5 million refugees fled to Middle Eastern countries.
In Africa, more than 4 million South Sudanese have been forced from their homes since the country gained independence in 2011. Malnutrition, disease and violence perpetuate often overlooked humanitarian crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. In Southeast Asia, 2 million people remain displaced in Myanmar — and that doesn’t count those who have fled to Bangladesh and other neighboring countries following the Rohingya genocide.
Here at home, border officials in 2022 found the remains of 853 migrants along the U.S. Southern border, and by September of last year the number of deaths had already surpassed 500. Just last weekend, two children and a woman drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande.
According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, the number of international migrants grew to 281 million in 2021, meaning that 3.6% of the world’s people lived outside their country of birth that year. The number trended down during the pandemic, but the numbers remain staggering. The causes of such massive migration are numerous: crop failure, famine, political oppression, pollution, forced removal, and the increase of natural disasters because of climate change.
The politics of immigration are complicated and contentious, yet the scriptures speak clearly about “extending hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13) and offering rightful treatment and care “to resident aliens” (Exodus 22:21). Jesus was unequivocal in his advocacy for the poor and oppressed, saying, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
The people of God often embarked on unexpected migrant journeys: Abram and Sarai were called by God to leave their country and people and go to the land to which God would lead them.
When famine struck the land of Canaan, Jacob instructed 10 of his sons to migrate to Egypt, where they could buy grain. Years later, Moses led the Exodus from Egypt and the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the Sinai desert. Our spiritual ancestors were migrating people.
Following the Babylonian deportation, the Judeans were held in exile in a foreign land until finally Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror of Babylonia, allowed them to return to Palestine.
In this season of Epiphany, we recall how the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus – fled to Egypt to escape the threats of Herod. Although Jesus grew up in Galilee, his public ministry was a border-crossing itinerant mission, preaching to Samarians and Judeans alike.
Three words come to mind when I think of the global migration crisis. The first is “compassion.” The creation narratives in Genesis remind us that God declared all humanity originally blessed — and it was good. God also implored us to steward the Earth and all living things. From the beginning, human beings were given dignity and equality by their Creator. Our faith compels us to respond with deep compassion to the poor and fleeing, the hungry and homeless.
I have vivid memories of the Vietnamese families my childhood congregation at Delavan United Church of Christ sponsored and helped resettle. The children were our schoolmates, the parents were hard workers, and the community embraced them. Twenty-five years later, the congregation I served in Grafton partnered with Lutheran Social Services to resettle a Karen family that had fled from Myanmar and was living in a refugee camp in Thailand. Today they are thriving.
In 2022, some of our congregations were involved Afghan refugee resettlement when more than 10,000 were housed at Fort McCoy. Such experiences were transformational for refugee families, and for the many volunteers who confronted their own fears and prejudices and discovered great joy in welcoming strangers and cultivating cross-cultural relationships.
Those of us who are not of indigenous descent have ancestors who migrated to this land, and while many were treated inhumanely, there were always people of faith who practiced the Golden Rule and welcomed strangers as neighbors. The lived the words of Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
The second word that comes to mind is “conviction.” Plenty of people are convinced that the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is not our problem and that closing our borders is the answer. This may be their conviction, but it is neither the conviction of the scriptures nor the teaching of Jesus. God’s radical call to “love our neighbor” convicts all of us of our selfish and parochial ways and invites us to help address the systemic causes of migration. A few years back churches, in the Wisconsin Conference studied immigration as we went through the process of becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Conference.
What can you do?
“Compromise” is the third word that comes to mind. The politics of immigration too often devolves into finger-pointing by two sides so deeply entrenched in their own positions that they cannot find their way to mutually agreeable solutions. They have forgotten, it seems, that the entire American system of government is designed to funnel us toward compromise. As a result, Congress has not passed comprehensive immigration legislation in the 21st century.
There are fair compromises to be struck between reasonable levels of border security and reasonable numbers of green cards. Here in Wisconsin, immigrants provide thousands of employees to the farming and service industries, and highly educated immigrants continue to advance our research in the STEM disciplines across our country. Through their food, art, music and cultural traditions, they add countless beautiful threads to the diverse tapestry that is the United States.
Congress has before it comprehensive, bipartisan legislation, known as the Dignity Act, that gained significant traction last summer. The bill addresses border security and border infrastructure, grants legal status and the possibility of citizenship to undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, establishes new pathways for asylum seekers, and creates new legal pathways for economic migrants and unaccompanied minors.
U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat from Southern California, wrote this editorial explaining his support of the Dignity Act.
Let us commit ourselves to promoting dialogue, education and legislative reform on this challenging issue. There is a way forward that preserves human dignity and economic stability and immigrant opportunity — a way forward that honors the values of Jesus.