“Maria” and “Ernesto,” along with their two children, migrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 2000s. They made the dangerous trip across the border due to the violence surrounding them in their hometown just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, violence that stemmed from the drug wars between the cartels and the Mexican government.
They were both somewhat educated and owned a small family business, but they were afraid for the lives of their children. They now reside in Tennessee where they, in spite of their undocumented status, have managed to thrive financially while living in constant fear of being jailed and deported.
“Juan,” a native of Guatemala, lived in the mountains just outside of the capital city of Ciudad Guatemala. He was a farmer and was able to support his family by selling the crops he raised in the local market.
However, a U.S. corporation that was aided by corrupt politicians in his province appropriated his land. Unable to make a living, he decided to migrate to “El Norte” to find work and then send funds to his family back in Guatemala.
He now works at the backside of famed Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, as a “horse walker,” earning $175 per week and working every day without a day off.
After sending most of his money to his family back home, he barely has enough to feed himself. He relies on the charity of the local churches who allow him to visit their food pantries and clothes closets on a regular basis.
“Goanar” came to the U.S. from Sudan as a political refugee, escaping war and poverty. He struggles with the language and finding a decent job in Iowa to provide for his wife and two children.
A Presbyterian since birth, he has not felt welcome at any of the Presbyterian congregations he has visited. He now worships with an African-American Pentecostal church.
These stories are true. I know all of these people. They are also typical of many migrants who now call the United States home. Their reasons for coming here are varied, but they all have a common thread: People are willing to risk limb and life in order to pursue safe haven and provide for their families.
We can draw parallels between these stories and the story of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Issues of personal safety, survival and political intrigue combine in this brief biblical narrative.
Prompted by the angel of the Lord, they migrated to Egypt where many Jews already lived. Eventually their fears became a reality when King Herod ordered the massacre of the infants in Judea.
Many scholars equate the flight to Egypt by the holy family with other similar events in the Bible.
In Genesis 46 we see another Joseph fleeing to Egypt where he eventually found safety. Later in the religious history of the Hebrew people, the exodus from Egypt also illustrates God’s care for God’s people, as migrating becomes the means for God’s salvation.
Migration seems to be part of our religious history. In God’s amazing providential care, God has seen God’s people move from place to place many times in order to fulfill God’s designs of justice, peace and compassion for God’s people and society in general.
Migration (or more properly termed “immigration”) is changing our society and church. Since the 1960s, people from what we know as the global south (mostly people of color and speaking languages other than English) have come and continue to come to the U.S. in large quantities.
The noted church historian Phillip Jenkins, in his seminal book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Community,” asserts, “The religious future of the Christian world is in the hands and under the influence of Global South Christians, most of them people of color with very different worldviews, culture and languages from the presently dominant white, Western church.”
It is a reality, which, thankfully, many see as an opportunity to enhance their worldview and learn from others who are different. On the other hand, unfortunately, many others see the opposite.
Racist attitudes have been concretized in anti-immigrant laws in many parts of the country, especially in the South and against Latinos – and most recently against Middle Easterners and Muslims.
Even the “Goanars” who come as refugees, and thus with proper immigration status, also face overt racism and marginalization in society.
What is the church to do when she encounters these situations?
Many passages in Scripture call the people of God to be compassionate and just with the stranger, with the migrant and with the alien, such as:
Do not oppress an alien [immigrant]; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens [immigrants], because you were aliens [immigrants] in Egypt (Exodus 22:21, 23:9)
God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
Luke 10:25-37, for example, refers to the Samaritan, a stranger or alien from the Jewish perspective, as the one who understands fully what being a good neighbor really means.
The seminal Matthew 25 passage challenges us to show hospitality, compassion and justice to those who are different – to those who are not part of our communities and who might find themselves at the margins of society.
And we must do this because whether in the physical or theological sense, if we are Christians, we are all migrants.
In other words, I am not just talking about the fact that all of us, unless we are Native Americans, either migrated ourselves from another country or our ancestors did.
The writer of 1 Peter calls Christians “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11).
As Christians we live in our neighborhoods, towns and cities as part of our communities, but are aliens or strangers in the eyes of many.
If we claim to believe and follow the radical Palestinian Jew whose kin-dom is one of love, compassion, grace and justice for all, then we are indeed aliens in a world that believes the total opposite.
And in what should be the most important reality of all, our theological or religious tradition tells us that God eventually became like one of us by “migrating,” if you will, from God’s heavenly abode, to our country called earth.
God chose to become a human being within the context of the Jewish culture. God could have chosen to become a human being within any cultural context.
Jesus could have been a Korean, or a Pakistani, or a Latin American. Actually, God is all of those things.
God in Jesus Christ chose to speak one – or two – of our languages. God chose to look like one of us so that we could know God better and experience a full, meaningful life.
God is present, by the miracle of the incarnation and by the power of the Holy Spirit, in every one of us. God is also an immigrant! Moreover, Jesus began his earthly life as a real physical migrant who, along with his family, sought safety in a foreign land.
So if God is also a migrant and we are called to love God and our neighbor, we are also called to treat the alien, the immigrant and the exiled in the same way God treated us as adopted children into God’s realm of love and justice.
I strongly believe that God is giving us in the U.S. church an opportunity to receive fresh ideas and new music and different styles of worship and new names for our God of love and grace.
Our lives will be enriched by their stories and experiences.
Antonio “Tony” Aja is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the moderator for the National Hispanic/Latino Presbyterian Caucus and an adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary. A former refugee from Cuba, Tony has developed new ministries with refugees and immigrants in Florida and Kentucky.