Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.…Matthew 2:13-14
My daughter’s best friend is a Syrian refugee. She is not a terrorist or the daughter of a terrorist or some other horrible caricature the Trump supporters might reduce her to. She is, simply, a child. She lives in our town with her parents who are improving their English and an ornery older brother, but worries about her grandmother and the cousins they left behind. My daughter thinks she has the striking look of Anne of Green Gables combined with the good-hearted nature of Pollyanna. They eat lunch together every day, share secrets, and navigate each other through the perils of the first year of middle school.
Unlike many their age, sometimes they speak of war for it is no stranger to either of them. Her best friend speaks of bombs too-close-to-home, of fleeing across borders, of lives lost, and of hopes of returning home one day. My daughter does not know the impact of war intimately like her best friend does; but being half-Sri Lankan, she has never been entirely protected from the realities of war either. As a young child, we would quietly slip her into the war-wracked country to share giggles with grandparents, play with cousins, and sing hymns for peace from the midst of great tragedy. The lasting impact of a 25-year civil war does not fade quickly into silence.
“She’s just like me, mama,” my daughter tells me. “I’ve never had a friend my heart feels so close to.”
Her words send me back in time to my first kindred spirit, an enthusiastic Swedish immigrant who welcomed the new-kid in fifth grade. “Hi!” she bounced toward me in the lunch line, “Can I sit by you today?” A newcomer to the US herself, she instinctively knew the value of extending a kind hand to lonely souls. Our bond sealed over the simplicity of childhood fun like dressing up as twin punk-rockers for trick-or-treat and sharing secrets at recess. Though our paths diverged long ago, we share a profound affection for one another to this day.
Hers is not the only such story of being welcomed to ‘my own country’ in my life. I think of the kind refugees and immigrants in my ESL classes who welcomed me to California. Many were Egyptian, Syrian, or Chinese Christians in search of a place to lay their head where following Jesus didn’t risk death. Their heads often hung low for the angst of separated families, the sorrow of what-could-have-been, and the loss of successful professional careers and social statuses. Even so, there were moments when I saw their eyes lift as they shared food from home, raised their arms in dance, or expressed their deep gratefulness with a consistent “thank you, teacher.” Their resilience sustained me at a time when I needed healing and welcome myself.
My husband’s parents tell stories of their early days in America – tales of how his father ate only yogurt for months and his mother taught herself the rules of American football. There are stories of falling on ice for the first time, of navigating new systems alone, and of deep longing for home. My great-grandparents were immigrants themselves, and their stories trickle down through the cracks in our family story. While not always pretty, it still comes through loud and clear with a decent amount of perseverance, grit, and hope.
Stories like these ring deep as I mourn the headlines of rejecting refugees and holding immigrants at bay. While the fight to welcome strangers is nothing new, it is still one I regard with deep sorrow because of the great goodness I have learned from them. From a refugee family himself, Jesus surely must grieve this disconnect as well. I am grateful to the artist who puts an image to Jesus’ sorrow over our world’s struggle to care for the refugees in our midst:
In these days of increasingly polarized and politicized debate, may his followers silence the naysayers by living out his words:
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
- Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate and Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Matt Soerens
- Faith-based resources to support immigrants under Trump administration