“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. I Corinthians 10:23
I once consulted at a school district in a rural Midwestern town that had seen its Latino population grow from roughly 5% in the spring to almost 30% in the fall. The community was struggling with the rapid transition to say the least. One man whispered to me that the local mayor had just won his election on the informal slogan, “Get ’em out of here,” and while everyone in the community surely wasn’t this hostile to their new neighbors, many were scrambling to understand and find effective ways to welcome the newcomers to their community.
In The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community, Mary Pipher details a similar experience in the process of a community coming to grips with its change in Lincoln, Nebraska. In her observation of the shift occurring in many parts of our country, she poses some important questions about our ever-changing identity:
“Who are we when we don’t have a hometown, when we don’t know our neighbors or our kin? Who are we when we don’t know the history of our land or the names of common plants or birds in our area? Or when our stories come from television sets instead of grandparents or village storytellers? Who are we in a world where the universal language is, to quote Pico Iyer, ‘french fries’?
The french fry questions linger in my heart as I spend my days with the perseverant immigrants, in part because I know so well the quaint simplicity of hometowns and quiet cornfields. While both immigrants and hometowns have their own measures of beauty and goodness, I often wonder how these worlds I live between will manage to sort each other out.
Why don’t they just go back where they came from? I hear echo through the cornfields, as if any of the rest of us (minus the blessed Native Americans) did this very thing. For better or for worse, immigration is the story of our country. It is the story of my great-grandparents crossing an ocean from Sweden and finding a big field under a cloudy sky to call home. It is the story of my in-laws resettling in a new land both to serve in underserved areas and to provide their children with education and opportunity. It is the story of my students who love the freedom and diversity of this country enough to make themselves an actual part of it. If we “just send them back”, we deny a significant part of our story.
They should just learn English, I hear more echoes. But they are, I want to shout back. I watch them struggle to grasp a crazy-hard language, hear their mistakes, see their attempts and perseverance. If we native speakers had to learn our complicated, many layered language, we would surely be slower to criticize. Don’t believe me? Read this and this and this and this and this. Every immigrant I’ve ever met wants to learn English, knows it will increase their ability to be a part of this country, but they also are just like the rest of us – they have jobs and children and histories and all-sorts-of-complicated-realities that slow down the language learning process.
All illegal immigrants do is commit crime, I hear. We don’t want those kind of people in our country. And I wonder why the few bad eggs suddenly define the masses. US Citizens have quite a few of our own bad eggs to speak of, like the continued existence of the KKK, the Minutemen, the abortion bombers, the horribly mean churches, but they are hopefully few and far between, certainly not defining the vast majority of us. If we allow exceptions for ourselves, why don’t we apply the same parameters to others as well?
“We think the world apart,” wrote Parker Palmer. “What would it be like to think the world together?” Or, to put it another way, how do we spend our efforts welcoming the stranger and telling this story well rather than stomping around pretending we own the place? Palmer’s question leaves me dreaming with Mary Pipher about how we might embrace the role of cultural brokers for the newcomers in our midst rather than playing cultural guards of something that doesn’t really belong to us anyway.
As an English language teacher, the role of cultural broker is naturally built into my profession. We spend our days, the motley mix of us from so many countries and languages, taking a stab at understanding each other. We share a love of food and laughter, a passion for children and celebration, a hope for peace and restoration. The Mexican students shake their heads over the increasing drug wars in their homeland. The Middle Eastern Christians’ eyes reflect both deep joy in Jesus and resounding sadness over the reality of persecution for following him. The Chinese students echo a quiet focus and steadfastness to pursue excellence and value community. We think the world together, learning these things slowly from each other, opening our eyes to realities far from our own. But the ESL classroom isn’t the only place where such learning occurs.
From rural to urban, coast to cornfield, immigrants are now living in nearly every community of the US. While the actual numbers of immigrants are the highest in traditional states like New York, California, and Florida, the immigration growth rate is actually highest in the south and midwest, places where monoculturalism used to be the norm, where french fries (and occasionally donuts) still speak a universal language. If we want to think the world together, we must seriously consider if our communities will receive newcomers with open arms or if we will just squeeze our eyes tight and hope they go away.
If we pay attention, the church has the basis to lead the way on this one. The issue of immigration reform in America is every bit as much an issue of human life as abortion, child slavery, and family values. It is not about Republican or Democratic allegiances, but about families and children and hope and morality. Given its global reputation of self-centeredness and cultural arrogance, I haven’t always liked the US much, but the immigrants are convincing me day-by-day what a unique potential this land offers, and it makes me want to be part of the solution that helps it live up to its potential.
So maybe you’re thinking, it’s easy for her, she gets paid to spend her days with the immigrants. But me? I don’t know any. What can I possibly do? I’ve got a few ideas for you:
- Read. I’ve listed two books below – Welcoming the Stranger and The Middle of Everywhere – that are by far some of the best I’ve ever read on any topic, let alone immigration. They will open your eyes to the realities of the issue, and give you insight into the lives and strength of immigrants here in the US and how we might receive them with arms open.
- Watch. If you’re not a reader, movies can be a great way to understand the immigrant experience and see life through another’s eyes. Some of my favorite movies about immigrant life are My Family, The Namesake, Bend it like Beckham, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You can find even more recommendations of movies here and follow the news here.
- Contact elected officials to urge them to support immigration reform. The system is outdated and broken and is in desperate need of fixing. You can learn more details and find ways to contact your representatives on sites like Evangelical Immigration Table and Church World Service.
- Welcome your neighbor. Keep your eyes open for newcomers in your community. When you meet them, don’t just gawk at an ‘exotic’ being, offer a handshake and smile. Look for ways to befriend them and find out what needs they might have. One of the best examples I’ve seen of a church doing this is an outreach ESL program at Faith International Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. When a few members of the church realized the apartment complex across the street had a small group of immigrants, they reached out and offered to teach them English. Over the years, the program grew from a small group to two hundred students and a whole slew of volunteers teaching, babysitting, and welcoming the newcomers in their community.
- Partner with organizations. There are usually government or social service organizations in communities to help refugees settle in a new land. World Relief, Catholic Charities, and Church World Service run such agencies in many places and are always in need of volunteers to teach English or sponsor new families.
- Look for ways to provide employment opportunities. I worked with the CEO of a factory in a very rural community who had hired a large population of Burmese people to work in his textile plant. He then contacted me about offering English classes because he wanted his employees to have the opportunity to learn English while they worked for him. It was a win-win situation because he cared well for his employees and they, in gratefulness for his value of them, were very committed to their employer.
- Live with them. Matt Soerens, the author of Welcoming the Stranger, developed an interest in immigration initially because he lived in an apartment complex called Parkside which was home to a high number of immigrant families. When the city of Glen Ellyn wanted to redevelop the apartment complex, many raised their voices and knowledge of the system to protest the decision to displace an established community. In addition to the residents, the larger community showed up as well, asking the council to allow them to keep their home. And the council said yes. They raised their voices together – the citizens and the immigrants – and they won. This is literally seeking the good of our neighbors. You can read the whole remarkable story here.
Our world is indeed changing, but it is no new story. It is one that has been told throughout ages. The question is how ours will be told. Will it be a story of closed eyes, cold shoulders and us-vs-them rhetoric or will it be one of neighbors looking out for each other, of welcoming strangers and caring for the very world in our midst? In our actions, may we live as people who are helpful and who build up those around us, regardless of the similarities we share or the differences we don’t fully understand.
When the village storytellers gather to remember us, let them not retell the oft-repeated story of violence and division, but instead let us leave them with stories of building communities, seeking understanding, and learning from each other. Let them tell the story of us loving our neighbors.
Welcoming the stranger: Justice, compasson, and truth in the immigration debate by Jenny Hwang Yang and Matt Soerens
G92 – browse the website for a wide variety of articles and information on immigration reform in the US