About a year ago, at Ascension we began exploring the possibility of offering our parsonage as housing for a refugee family. Not long after that, a Syrian family of eleven moved in. From my friendship with them, I have learned how culturally bound my expectations of others tend to be. I have made a lot of assumptions about what the Ismaels need only to learn that I'm usually wrong, and what I thought they need is not at all what they need. I have learned to listen, and pay attention to what I'm hearing, so that rather than expecting them to become like me, I can appreciate who they are as human beings just as surely created in the image of God as I am. Welcoming them into our midst has been a holy undertaking, to be sure.
There is a lot of disagreement in our country about how welcoming we should be to immigrants and refugees these days. The inhospitable (and often downright hateful) attitude some Americans have toward immigrants puzzles me. Especially when so many of those same people claim to follow Jesus. I don't get it.
With the exception of Native Americans, we all came here from someplace else, so how can we have such animosity toward immigrants? I'm told that the problem is with illegal immigrants. Okay. Maybe. But I’m not convinced.
I suspect that what bothers us, if we're honest, is the otherness of people who just aren’t like us. An us-and-them way of looking at the world is hard-wired into us. Way back in our cave-dweller days, it was a matter of survival to be wary of the other. So, maybe that explains why we always have to have someone who is the other, someone we perceive as a threat to our way of life. Whether it’s the Irish, the communists, the blacks, the Jews, the Muslims, the gays... Our need to protect ourselves from the other may be inevitable.
Years ago, I attended a meeting of the Homeowners’ Association in my neighborhood, and I was both amused and dismayed to hear the people around me blaming all of the negative occurrences in our neighborhood on the people who lived in the condominiums. A huge development, it was well integrated in almost every way. However, we still managed to identify someone to be the other. While the majority of us lived in houses, there was a section of the development that consisted of condos. And, apparently, those who lived in the condos were the ones who weren’t cleaning up their dog poop, went speeding down the streets, and threw wild parties that lasted all night. Really?
A big part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is going against the attitudes and behaviors of the dominant culture. And while it may appear that the world of Jesus’ day and the world of our day are as different as clay tablets and iPads, our tendency to protect ourselves from the other is common to both cultures.
In Jesus' day, the good religious people worked hard to live holy lives by separating themselves from people who were impure. But Jesus flipped the whole idea of holiness upside down. For him, holiness was expressed through compassion for those considered impure and the inclusion of all people in God’s kingdom. Matthew Fox wrote about this in his book, Original Blessing, suggesting that the true meaning of holiness is hospitality, which is essentially, the offer of safety, comfort, and nourishment to both friend and stranger.
If holiness is hospitality, we are seeing some very unholy behavior in our country. Perhaps, if we could learn to follow the One who put the law of compassion above all other laws, we would see that those we fearfully label as the other are really not that different from us. They risk their lives to come to this country, not because of some evil they have conspired against us, but because they long for a better life for their families. Who among us wouldn’t do all we could to provide food and shelter for our young children or our aging parents? Those who risk so much to care for the ones they love certainly deserve our respect, if not our admiration.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not denying that there is a problem. What I am saying is that it is not an immigrant problem. It's not even an us-and-them problem, or a good-guys and bad-guys problem. As much as anything, for those who claim to follow Jesus, it seems to be another one of those are-you-just-gonna-mouth-the-words-or-are-you-really-gonna-follow-him problems.