By: Cathy M. Kolwey
You walk with us in deserted places
And show us the way to the Promised Land.
Guide us through the thorny thickets that entangle us,
the arid refuge of serpents and scorpions that puncture our resolve.
That our determination to continue in your ways,
Despite the hardships we encounter, will never falter.
Por favor, Buen Coyote, for it is in your name, Jesus Christ, we pray.
(Author: George Tatro, liturgical resources for immigration, PCUSA website)
Issues surrounding immigration are at the forefront of current political debate, but issues surrounding displaced persons have been around since biblical times. This is why thinking about these issues through a theological lens is helpful. As congregations, we can engage in a thoughtful dialogue that goes deeper than just a two-sided debate. Here are some thoughts on how to start that discussion.
Start with your own history
Unless you are a Native American, then someone in your family history was once an immigrant. What is your family’s story? This is a good place to start. Whether trying to escape the Irish potato famine or exploring the new world as a Moravian missionary, we each have an immigration story we can tell. For some, this story will be a point of personal pride; for others it will be source of deep pain. It is important to name these stories at the beginning of a discussion about immigration, though, because it helps us to identify with those who are seeking to make a better life for themselves. The idea of religious pilgrimage is more than just steeped in our nation’s history; it is the very foundation on which we are built. We should also take a moment to consider that the people who are labeled as immigrants today may also believe that they are on a religious pilgrimage.
Now, look around you
Do you know an immigrant? The sad answer for many of us is, “No, we don’t.” We talk about the issue at an ideological level, but we can’t put a face on the label. It is important to explore personal narratives that can teach us about the real life experiences of immigrants today, so that we can personalize the story. One excellent resource for this is a book that was published by the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services called “This Much I Can Tell You,” which is a collection of eighteen essays from immigrants of nine countries (ISBN# 978-1592984107). Another idea for personalizing the experiences of immigrants is to use the “We Are America Stories” resource (www.weareamericastories.org). This collection of video, audio, photo, and text stories brings to life the voices of the immigrants in our country’s dialogue on the issue of immigration. Hearing from real people about their experiences with the complex and often broken immigration system can add depth and a multi-faceted perspective to the issue of immigration, which is so often portrayed as a black and white, two-sided issue.
Next, dig deeper
Personalizing the immigration narrative is only a beginning. Our task in thinking theologically is to look with a critical eye at the issue as it is portrayed in the culture and media around us. How has immigration been portrayed in movies? Consider comparing movies like Far And Away (1992) and Green Card (1990) to more recent contributions like Gran Torino (2002), Maria Full of Grace (2004), and The Kite Runner (2007). How has the portrayal of immigrants in cinema changed in the past 20 years? This is an opportunity to go deep and have a discussion about how the media’s portrayal of immigrants has distorted our own views of what the true reality of the immigrant population is.
We can also turn to our own denominations to dig deeper. More than 20 denominations have developed denominational statements on immigration, including the PC(USA), the RCA, the UCC, and the National Council of Churches. Look up your denominational statement at www.welcometheimmigrant.org and dig deeper into your own church’s view of the issue through the lens of the denomination’s stance.
And don’t forget to turn to the scriptures. From Abraham to Joseph to Paul, our biblical tradition is rich with stories of exile and exodus. Explore the nature of these people who were strangers in a new land. What can they teach us about our modern day stories of exile? Remember that Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to avoid political persecution. Jesus’ story comes full circle when he challenges us to explore the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Don’t stop there
More than just exploring the issues and reflecting on experiences, thinking theologically about immigration calls us to action. We cannot just learn, we must also respond. Plan a worship service that includes liturgical resources by immigrants from the PC(USA) website. Start a postcard campaign for immigration reform to your government representatives. Consider sponsoring an ESL class at your church. Lao-Tzu says “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Take a step toward welcoming the neighbors who have journeyed thousands of miles to find freedom and peace in a pilgrimage of their own.
Cathy M. Kolwey has been a Christian educator and a member of APCE since 2002. She is a freelance writer and curriculum designer for Sparkhouse Publishers, as well as a seminary student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN.