Liberty & Love
By Troy Jackson
Sadly I’ve discovered that our country’s heart and the church’s compassion for the immigrant are much smaller than I would have imagined.
Twenty years ago, I set out on an East Coast road trip to look at potential seminaries and graduate schools. Reared in Indiana, I had never been to New York City, Philadelphia, or Boston. I was excited to see those great American cities and some of the iconic landmarks of our nation.
As I rambled down the New Jersey Turnpike, approaching New York, I caught the city’s famous skyline in the distance. As the traffic slowed and eventually stalled, I happened to glance to my right, where the Statue of Liberty stood proudly in the bay.
My first response? Lady Liberty is much smaller in person than I had ever imagined! I had a similar response to Mount Rushmore. Sometimes our images and expectations make something out to be much bigger and much larger than it actually is. When we have a firsthand experience, we are underwhelmed.
At its base, the Statue of Liberty includes an Emma Lazarus poem titled “The New Colossus.” (No I could not see the poem from the turnpike!) Written as a tribute to the statue and the nation, the poem famously concludes: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
A story we tell ourselves in America is that this poem rings true: we are a nation of immigrants. We welcome the stranger. We have generous laws and regulations that encourage legal immigration, and we always have.
Over the past few years, as I have gotten more involved in the lives of undocumented immigrants, I have learned that America’s willingness to welcome the stranger and the immigrant is much smaller and more anemic than I had imagined. The bitter reality does not hold a candle to the aspirations contained in the Statue of Liberty and the sublime poem by Emma Lazarus.
The Harsh Reality
More than anyone else, my connection to Bernard Pastor revealed a different and harsh reality facing many immigrants. When I first met Bernard, he was an 18-year-old graduate of Reading High School in the Cincinnati area. Bernard graduated fifth in his high school class and was his school’s star soccer player. He is also the son of a minister, and led the congregation’s youth group.
I didn’t meet Bernard at a youth rally or church event or through mutual friends. Instead, when I met Bernard, he was wearing a lime green jumpsuit. Our first conversation happened through bulletproof glass via an antiquated telephone headset with lousy reception at a remote county jail in Mount Gilead, Ohio.
Born in Guatemala, Bernard had fled the country with his family when he was 1 because of violence and religious persecution in his village. (Bernard’s family had converted from Catholicism to a Pentecostal faith.) They made their way to the United States, where they were given temporary religious asylum.
After several years, a court denied his family’s permanent asylum request, but fearing a return to Guatemala, and feeling called to serve and minister in the United States, Bernard’s father and family remained. At that point, they became undocumented immigrants. Bernard was still a young boy at that point, and when as a teen he learned of his status, he kept it a secret.
One evening in November 2010, he decided to deliver some Bibles to his coworkers, and got into a small fender bender. When the police officer arrived, he discovered that Bernard was undocumented, and he fast-tracked Bernard into deportation proceedings.
When I met Bernard, he had been in jail for more than two weeks, and he eventually would spend 30 days incarcerated. For each of those 30 days, Bernard wondered if it would be his last in the United States. He contemplated a future in a country he didn’t know where he would be isolated from friends, family, and his American culture.
Many asked why Bernard, or other young people who have grown up in the United States, but are not citizens, can’t just get in line to become a citizen like everyone else. When one studies the immigration laws, however, one discovers there is no process that doesn’t involve a wait of a decade or more in another country for young people like Bernard, with no guarantee they will ever be allowed to return to the United States. Our heart for the immigrant, and particularly those who have grown up among us, is smaller than I had imagined.
Meanwhile, during times of economic growth, many industries depend on immigrant labor to keep up with market demands. Let’s face it—we depend on immigrants to take low-wage jobs as farm laborers, construction workers, hotel staff, and restaurant employees to keep prices low and to help businesses make ends meet.
But according to U.S. immigration law, only a few thousand unskilled laborers are allowed in the country on work permits in any given year, far below the demand during even lean economic times, let alone seasons of economic growth. Only highly skilled workers who have a company petition for them demonstrating their unique contributions have a good shot at getting work permits.
The Church’s Perspective
If our nation’s heart for immigrants is smaller than I’d imagined, certainly the church would have a different perspective. After all, over and over again in the Old Testament, God reminds the people of Israel to treat immigrants and foreigners in their land with mercy, as they too were sojourners in the land of Egypt. In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about the importance of welcoming the stranger in our midst, for as we welcome the stranger, we are welcoming Jesus.
Yet somehow, many in the church become passionate believers in law and order when it comes to undocumented immigrants. Some descend into utter disdain and vilify undocumented immigrants, blinded by nationalism to the point where they fail to see the God-given dignity of every person, regardless of status.
Many have come to call undocumented immigrants “Illegals,” since they are breaking American immigration laws. On the one hand, as a follower of Jesus, I applaud this term, as long as we evenhandedly apply it to ourselves, recognizing our need for the grace of God. After all, I must confess, when I drive my car, I frequently exceed the speed limit. Not by much, mind you, and I haven’t received a ticket for a decade, but I speed every day. So I too am an illegal!
But the reality is that in the church and in our society, we reserve the term illegal for immigrants in our midst, again revealing a smallness that fails to reckon with the fact that we are all created in the image of God. Are there immigrants who are illegally in the country? Yes. But we need to be very careful in turning an adjective into an essence-defining noun. As James reminds us, words are powerful, and we must use them with care and wisdom. There are few areas in the church and in this country that need as strong an application of the call to control our tongues as our language about undocumented immigrants!
I love the story I heard from a friend who lives in the Phoenix area. A pastor of a megachurch in suburban Phoenix became convicted by the way he and his church had dismissed immigrants in their midst, and even tolerated hatred toward them. Finally he decided to publicly air his concerns, and preached a sermon on the topic. At one point, as he got into the core of his sermon, he said to his congregation: “You may say to me, ‘what about illegal do you not understand?’ I say to you, ‘what about love your neighbor do you not understand?’”
This is the call, to embody big and audacious love toward the immigrant and stranger in our midst, regardless of that person’s immigration status.
Our Opportunity to Love
Several years ago, my family decided to drive to Arizona for the North American Christian Convention, held in Phoenix that year. On our way back to Ohio, we stopped for a few days at the Grand Canyon. Having been underwhelmed by more than a few must-see locations in my life, I scaled back my expectations. Then we walked to the overlook from the South Rim, and I was speechless. The Grand Canyon was deeper and wider and more glorious than I ever imagined!
This is my hope for the church: let’s love all people, including the immigrant in our midst. Let’s draw the world to Christ with surprising love, crazy love, big love that extends to each and every person, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or immigration status.
I saw a foretaste of this love in the outpouring of Christ followers for Bernard Pastor. Hundreds around the country signed up to pray regularly for Bernard. Many ministers lifted their voices through the media and through social networking to share his story. And thankfully, after 30 days in jail, Bernard was released. He is now finishing up his freshman year at Xavier University in Cincinnati, in part because Jesus followers embodied big love for Bernard.
And as the old song says, they will know we are Christians by our love.
Troy Jackson serves as minister with University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.