I was a Stranger Challenge

When I was working with the Evangelical Immigration Table they had produced bookmarks that had 40 days of Scripture readings and prayer that helped readers understand the Bible’s focus and perspective on immigrants and immigration. I wanted to put it out here as a resource for those who might appreciate it:

  1. Genesis 1:27-28
  2. Exodus 12:49
  3. Exodus 22:21
  4. Exodus 23:9
  5. Exodus 23:12
  6. Leviticus 19:9-10
  7. Leviticus 19:33-34
  8. Leviticus 23:22
  9. Leviticus 24:22
  10. Numbers 15:15-16
  11. Deuteronomy 1:16
  12. Deuteronomy 10:18-19
  13. Deuteronomy 24:14
  14. Deuteronomy 24:17-18
  15. Deuteronomy 24:19
  16. Deuteronomy 26:12
  17. Deuteronomy 27:19
  18. Job 29:16
  19. Psalm 94:6-7
  20. Psalm 146:9
  21. Jeremiah 7:5-7
  22. Jeremiah 22:3
  23. Ezekiel 22:6-7
  24. Ezekiel 22:29
  25. Zechariah 7:10
  26. Malachi 3:5
  27. Matthew 2:13-14
  28. Matthew 25:35
  29. Mark 2:27
  30. Luke 10:36-37
  31. Acts 16:37
  32. Acts 17:26-27
  33. Romans 12:13
  34. Romans 13:1-2
  35. Ephesians 2:14-18
  36. Philippians 3:20
  37. Hebrews 13:2
  38. 1 Peter 2:11-12
  39. 1 Peter 2:13-14
  40. Revelation 7:9-10
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Theology in a Hospital

I went to help a family who has a special needs US citizen child in the cardiac intensive care ward at the local children’s hospital. It was the first time I actually met someone in their hospital room to do paperwork. It was very strange to talk about immigration legal matters with respiratory therapists, nurses, doctors, etc. coming and going.

The baby is a precious little down syndrome girl who was born without one of the tubes that gets blood from the heart to the lungs (the non-medical description I was given). While I am scanning documents and looking through papers another mother in a similar situation comes into the room. You can tell the two moms are close, bonded over the same stress and heartache.

I finish up the visit as I do with all our clients by explaining that we are a ministry, and I am a pastor. That- if it wouldn’t make anyone uncomfortable – I would love to pray for them. The client mom says yes, if a little guarded.

The visiting mom says, “Before we pray, can I ask a question?”

“Absolutely,” I reply.

“First, I love God. I know that somehow and some way His glory will be displayed in all of this. But I just want to know how a good God can allow this to these innocent babies?” The client mom turns toward me with a very intense look of anticipation. Even the nurse working the baby’s tubes and wires, looks across at us.

I actually get this question a lot in different forms. But never from someone holding back tears next to a baby fighting for all she is worth.

“There are two ways I have found to answer the question,” I respond. “There is the pastoral way, which is what we do in the face of suffering and evil. It has a lot to do with our own broken hearts and confusion. And there is the theological answer. Which is a lot more jagged and hard.”

“I would like to hear the theological answer, please,” she says.

“We are not living on a level playing field where kindness, goodness, right, and justice are the norm. The scriptures teach us that humanity made the decision (and keeps making the decision) to break the world morally, ethically, socially, even physically. We keep making the same decisions to not love God or others. We don’t want God or his ways. We are not good and innocent people doing loving acts of kindness who are suddenly blindsided by inexplicable acts of horror and suffering.

“It is into this brokenness that the Lord comes to us to call us to a new way of wholeness and life. We are not pulled out of the brokenness, but we are remade in the middle of it. It is in the heartache of our world and our lives that the Spirit of the Lord sends his grace and hope to heal and make new. It is in our confusion and agony that God in Christ offers his peace and comfort.

“I know this is no comfort when it is your suffering or your beautiful children fighting for their lives. But I think it puts responsibility in the right place, and helps align our hearts better in dark days.”

Visitor mom is silent for half a breath. She closes her eyes and says, “This makes sense to me.”

All I can do is say, “I’m sorry for this trial you have to bear. Can I pray for you? Can I ask the God-who-sent-his-son-to-make-a-way-for-all-children to bring healing to yours?” She nods as she cries silent tears.

Making the long walk to the parking deck feels out of body. My mind is miles away as my theology echoes in my own heart. At the time of the visit my wife was going through medical testing because they suspected lymphoma. At the time of this writing, lymphoma is confirmed.

My mind, similar to these amazing moms I think, is balancing out the theology and the reality in a numb kind of ache. This is not a theology that transforms darkness into unicorns and rainbows. There is no triumphal exertion of will for positive thinking to overcome negative thoughts. I cannot fill the silence with enough noise or activity to make it go away. In these moments of groping for God, the silence of numbness is not emptiness. It is not nothingness.

Something I cannot put into words is happening. I don’t know what it is, but I have a vague sense that it is cruciform in shape. For my wife, my sons, and myself there is a place of meeting God… a wilderness outside of our very blessed lives… where he wants to walk with us.

I don’t want this journey, and I tell him so.

At the same time, I do. Because I know that I know that I know that it will be a journey with Him. He will come to us in this very human reality of despair and fragility and redeem it. He has in every trial I have ever had to endure.  I feel deep down in my being that my wife will beat this. Honestly, however, thinking that you know the outcome doesn’t change the fact that you have to walk a long, hard road. And we have months of walking before we are done.

I can honestly say I’ve never heard this explanation before

I was sitting in a community partners meeting with the local high school. The vice-principal for discipline stood up and said, “We don’t have a discipline problem. We have an attendance problem.” I had heard the exact same thing from the middle school principal of my son’s school last spring. The middle school principal had served in numerous schools around the county, and he said this immigrant school was the best-behaved school he had ever served in. The high school principal shared that in a previous school he would have had at least 40 kids in suspension by the end of the year. At the immigrant high school, he had one for the entire year. “We don’t have a discipline problem.”

“However,” he went on to say, “We do have an attendance problem.” The vice-principal for attendance echoed his words.  “From the Junior and Senior years on we have a 97% graduation rate.  But from the cohort that starts as freshman we have an 80% drop-out rate among Latino boys.”

Heart breaking.

Then she shared a story. A young man came to her and said that he had to leave school for a while to go to work. She asked him what was going on. He said, “My dad was captured by the drug gangs in Mexico, and I have to go work to raise the ransom money.” He hoped he could come back soon. Could she keep his slot in school for him?

Life for people on the fringes is not like life for the rest of us.

Confusing criticism

There are many dividing walls in our world – physical, cultural, economic, racial, religious, theological – you name it and human beings can divide over it. They are “facts of life” we are always negotiating. For believers whose primary job description is reconciliation in a comprehensive sense (with God with others) it is an ever-present challenge.

This past month I hit a wall that always leaves me deflated and off-balance. It was a criticism by another organization about how we “do business.” This organization never looked at what we do, our work, or curriculum; but assumed that because we focus on relationships and helping people that we must be compromising “the law” in some fashion. The main criticism was that we “are too pastoral.” Not sure what that means for a ministry, but they certainly meant it as criticism, and I took offense.

Of course, being “too pastoral” I immediately went to prayer. I prayed that there would be a dialogue to reconcile this, and way for vindication from unjust, petty criticism. I also prayed for encouragement for all the Immigrant Hope staff, and for my personal struggle.

I learned about the criticism as we were setting up for the Immigrant Pathway Institute in Minneapolis in August*. There was a lot to do and a very busy schedule. I wasn’t thinking about it all the time, but it was always there in the back of my head as the week progressed. Then the blessing came.

We were setting up on Friday morning and participants were slowly filing in. A quiet young woman came up and asked if I had a minute. She said that this had been a very significant week in her life. That while she was a pastor’s kid she hadn’t really been walking with God as an adult. Recently, he had been pulling on her heart. This week, it all came together and through tears and prayer she re-dedicated her life to Christ. With bright, glistening eyes she thanked Immigrant Hope for being one of the points of encouragement by being an example of what it means to live fully for God in service to others.

I felt this weight life off my shoulders. I had this strange feeling in the center of my chest that took me a moment to name. It was joy. While all moments of reconciliation are sacred, the reconciliation between a soul and her Maker is the most amazing of all.

We prayed. I was excited and humbled. Mostly I was thankful for the gift of encouragement. To be one small part in a chain of relationships that brings peace and healing is the heart of all ministry. I shared the wonderful news with the rest of the staff. It was a very good day.

I will stack up our body of work with anyone’s. I am proud of my organization, the work we do, and the way we do it. I will gladly be called “pastoral” in the way, the motivation, and intention of my work. We do this to provide concrete help to neighbors that we love and care for. None of us chose this to be a constitutional scholar. Lord bless those who are. We need them, but we don’t have any in my neighborhood. We have pastorally minded men and women who are blessed to give our all and our very best to understanding and explaining immigration matters to those who come to us. We don’t do it alone or on our own. And, yes, we do it pastorally, compassionately, and purposefully.

Now I need to pray for reconciliation with critics.

*IPI provides 40 hours of immigration legal training for people seeking Board of Immigration Appeals accreditation, as well as for attorneys who want to learn more or who are moving into immigration from another area of Law.

Up-Close Distance

At sixteen, “Maria” risked her life traveling thousands of miles to find her sister only to learn that she will likely be sent back. I faced her across my desk and told her there was no way in the current system for her to stay.  I watched as this bright, lovely young woman developed that blank, flat, look of hopelessness.  It is like looking behind someone’s eyes as a flickering candle sputters, surges, and then blinks out in a wisp of smoke.

The despair on her face made me long for distance from the situation. Distance can be an amazing thing. It helps us to abstract. To not get caught up in all the details as we look for larger patterns.  It provides breathing room from the press of urgent matters.  I like and need distance.  But when our work is about moms and dads and kids, it isn’t easy to get.  Joy in one appointment.  Heart-break in the next.

I’m learning a new relationship with distance.  One “distance” idea in particular.  In seminary they call it “sovereignty.”  The idea that God is always in control and brings about his will.  This doctrine is used by people to give them perspective in confusing or difficult times. I have used it for comfort when things seem too big or complicated.  In all honesty I have also used it as a cop-out for not taking action or responsibility for things that scared me. But in the past month I find it is becoming a growing source of hope when combing through the details of a life looking for a way to stay in the United States or find the best way to bring a family member over.

Seeing the light flicker behind Maria’s eyes brings an intense reaction in me.  I want her to know – I NEED her to know – that her life is not inconsequential. SHE is not inconsequential. She was not created to struggle and be caste away.  To have dreams that can be dismissed.  So I speak sovereignty into the void of despair.  I speak it for her and for me.

I tell her that there is a Lord who is greater than the drug lords and coyotes, greater than the government she came from or the government of the United States of America.  None of us knows the path of life we will have to walk, but we can all know that it is not random or unintentional.  His love is real.  His care is concrete and actual when we walk with him.  When we spend time with him and learn how much he actually loves us.

I wish I could say that encouraging people in bad news always brings the glowing candle of hope back to someone’s eyes.  But it doesn’t.  It didn’t for Maria.  Or I should say, it didn’t when we were talking.  Maybe hope in a God who cares and who can bring about the best in a life is a seed that will eventually blossom. For me, it is life.  While it doesn’t provide “distance” in the meaning of stepping back, but it does provide meaning in the up-close particulars.  An ember of hope when the powers of the world actually are stacked against you.

A Weird Remembrance

Ten years ago the elders of our church made a bold decision to relocate from a wealthy suburb or Atlanta to an unknown place.  All we knew was that we would focus on immigrants.  It was the fruit of a year’s worth of seeking the Lord as a faith community; and my own driven, desperate discontent as a pastor.

One of the most compelling moments came when I was on a retreat.  I had my Bible and a simple request, “Show me your kingdom again, Lord.”  One of the first scriptures I felt drawn to after a time of prayer was Rev 2 where the angel corrects a church that is doing good things but has lost it’s first love, Jesus.  The angel tells the church to turn back and do the works they did when they first believed (out of the same motivation for Jesus’ grace to them).

Here’s the kicker – a fact that I never connected with until this time of reflection – the very first thing I ever consciously did as I was coming to faith was work with immigrants.  I was a freshman in college.  I went to my first evangelical church service with my RA.  The love and worship in the room took my breath away.  The next week he invited me along because he had received a call from the church.  I didn’t know what to expect, but I went along.  We were asked to deliver space heaters to migrant worker families in the Brazos Valley of TX.  We were thanked with home-made tortillas.

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”  I’m laughing because I never realized how literally this command would end up being.  Who would have thought that a first act of curiosity 33 years ago would be the seed from which a ministry like Immigrant Hope – Atlanta would spring?  Not me.  Sometimes God just makes me laugh with delight.

Mass Deportations? We tried that once…

There is a small minority that continuously calls for the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.  “Just round ‘em up and send ‘em all back!”

Here are the facts as I understand them:  the 11 million undocumented individuals is equivalent to the entire populations of Washington, Oregon and Idaho combined. Even if it were possible to find and deport that many people (which it isn’t), a mass deportation of that size is estimated to cost over $200 billion.  I recently read that this equates to $1000 in new taxes for every man, woman, and child in America.

But for perspective, we tried the mass deportation thing once before.  In the State of California from 1929 to 1939 US authorities forced, without due process, approximately 2 million Mexican looking people across the border.  It is estimated by the state of California that 1.2 million of them were US citizens.  Other studies have the number as low as a mere 500,000 of the deportees being US citizens.  California later passed the “Apology Act.”

Here is a pic I got off the internet:

Interestingly, hardly anyone has had this as part of their American History texts in school. Maybe because it is eerily too similar to other famous train photos:

Heavenly Father, 

You said to welcome the stranger.  It really is that simple.  Not that there aren’t systems and standards, but whatever way in which welcoming strangers is handled it must still have your heart at the center of it, or you will not bless or commend it.    

I pray for forgiveness for those in my country who because of fear and insecurity and the desire for popularity, power, and ratings have lost their perspective on history and morality.  I pray that you would pour out your grace and mercy.  That you would open our blind eyes to see this situation as you see it.  

Amen