by Ellen Sims
On March 28, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice held a vigil at Mobile’s Spanish Plaza in solidarity with the “Alabama 40.” Below is what I shared as one of several speakers.
At Open Table United Church of Christ, the church I pastor, I begin each service with these words: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That’s not a perfunctory line I say to be nice. I welcome everyone because welcome is at the heart of the Christian faith.
At the core of our welcoming religious commitment is the welcome we owe the strangers or foreigners or immigrants in our midst. Embedded deeply in ancient Near Eastern culture that birthed the Bible is the virtue of radical hospitality. Understandably. The three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—developed in a place that included dry deserts and inhospitable climate. If there hadn’t been a sacred code of hospitality, the people who traveled through certain regions would not have survived.
The foundational religion of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, teaches this in Leviticus 19: 33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him or her wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love her or him as yourself, for you were strangers/foreigners/immigrants in the land of Egypt.”
All of us are here because someone in our family was once a stranger in the land. Some of us are stranger than others! But we were all strangers once or are descended from strangers. All of our ancestors, except those who were slaves or Native Americans, made a choice to enter a land already occupied by another people. Maybe out of desperation to escape oppression in their native land. Maybe out of a hope to find a marginally better life here. Maybe to pursue a dream for wealth and power that resulted in oppressing others. All of us standing on this U.S. soil know it was previously claimed by the French, British, Spanish, the Republic of Alabama, and the Confederacy.
Flags that fly over us change. Borders are moved. But the human condition remains: We yearn for freedom and safety. We will do anything to protect our children. Remember, you once were strangers in this land.
Sadly there are other enduring truths about humanity: Some fear people who are different. Some leaders are always ready to exploit that fear and create scapegoats to blame for the problems we face. Remember, you once were strangers in this land.
The Bible is filled with stories that laud those who help foreigners. The Bible’s first stories of the life of Jesus emphasize that he would not have escaped death at the hands of a tyrant if his parents had not “illegally” crossed a border into Egypt. Jesus’s ministry focused on reaching out to foreigners, usually commending them above those of his own kind. “The Good Samaritan” in Luke’s Gospel is just one of many stories that emphasize the goodness of foreigners and the need to break the rules, if necessary, to give aid to the stranger. When some asked how to cross the border into God’s eternal kingdom, Jesus said, according to Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 25:35) that whoever feeds the hungry and gives drink to the thirsty and welcomes the foreigner essentially welcomes him. God’s realm is made up of those kind of people.
We as a nation and we as a global family won’t survive unless we learn to give shelter to refugees, aid to the stranger, welcome to the those fleeing terror elsewhere, comfort to children who are not our own.
I speak out of my own Christian tradition, not presuming we all here share the same religious background or any religious tradition. I simply offer what I can from mine. I do so in part because many who supported harsh immigration laws, like the anti-immigrant House Bill 56 created five years, were church going people fueled by sermons they heard in their churches. Many who are stoking the fears of people to be suspicious of those from other countries and religions are Christian ministers and politicians who name themselves as Christians.
I don’t recognize the religion they claim. So I say simply this: the God I see in Jesus is the welcoming God, the God who gives without counting the cost. The Jesus I follow, the Jesus I contemplate especially in this season of Lent, is even now walking toward Jerusalem, the seat of power, to demonstrate that love, not fear, will have the final say. In Jesus I see the breadth of God’s welcome for all.