"A Call to Radical Hospitality": A Commentary

February 09, 2011

By Cate Monaghan
Communications Director

"It's a justice issue." I heard that over and over at the Western Jurisdiction Immigration Training Event, "A Call to Radical Hospitality," in San Francisco Jan. 21-22 – so many times, in fact, that finally, I started to believe it.
Don't get me wrong; it isn't that I hadn't all along considered immigration rights to be a justice issue – but like so many people, I also thought it was far more complicated than that. My epiphany in San Francisco was that it doesn't have to be.
When you think about it, Jesus always kept it simple.
What is the first and greatest commandment? "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'"
He added, "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:37, 39.)
All the layers – laws, quotas, economics – we added those. And the notion that there's a "liberal" view and a "conservative" view, with an unbridgeable divide between them – well, all I can say is that that definitely isn't the "Christian view."
If you're a follower of Christ, a believer, you accept the miraculous. You refuse to place limitations on God's power. You buy into the fact that "nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37), that God "is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20), and even that – most miraculous of all, I think – "God is greater than our hearts." (1 John 3:20)
But in order to unleash that power, we have to make room for God to work.
I think it has to start with some housecleaning. Whichever "side" you claim, I contend that we've all allowed some stuff to move in – to our thoughts, our heart, our life – that isn't of God. We all have, because we're sinners, incapable of perfection this side of heaven. Not one of us has a claim to righteousness, apart from that which has been bestowed on us through grace. So we need to let go of our arrogant belief that we are right, and "the other side" is dead wrong.
Follow that with prayer and fasting. Fill me, Lord. Fill me with your wisdom. Give me your eyes, your mind. I want no point of view but yours.
I truly believe there is opportunity, today, for a meeting of the minds on immigration, if we start by asking God to inhabit those minds.
The biblical history of migration
"We have migration from the very beginning of our story as the people of God ... It's there in Genesis," said one workshop leader, Helene Slessarev-Jamir – Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Ministries at Claremont School of Theology.
While acknowledging that there are "multiple voices in Scripture," making it possible to develop arguments in support of varying concepts, Slessarev-Jamir pointed out that early Hebrew texts do refer to the rights of immigrants: She said the concept appears 37 times, in fact, in the first five books of the Bible (the Books of the Law). "Clearly this was a fundamental perspective that God wanted the Israelites to understand," she reasoned.
What rights were those? While "aliens," those who were not members of the 12 Tribes of Israel, were not allowed to inherit land (as widows and orphans were not), they did have all other rights, aside from those pertaining to religious participation. (In a Theocratic society, full citizenship is defined in religious terms, so those outside the 12 Tribes were not permitted to worship with the Israelites.) However, Mosaic law mandated that the "aliens" were to be treated exactly the same when it came to all issues of work, access to the courts, opportunity to glean, etc.
That moves the conversation from the framework of hospitality and welcoming the stranger, a fundamental concept in the sacred texts, to the framework of human rights, Slessarev-Jamir said.
She added that Jesus made a point of ministering to immigrants as well as to the people of Israel, as in his encounter with the woman at the well and his healing of the Canaanite woman's daughter.
"Jesus is a border-crosser, who helps teach other people how to cross borders and boundaries," she said.
But it's the law!
At another workshop, immigration law attorney Panravee Vongjaroenrat (UMCOR's Director of Immigration and Refugee Ministries) pointed out that when it comes to immigration, "The Law," is very fluid and far from logical, which makes compliance extremely difficult.
"Most law is common sense based. Immigration law doesn't follow common sense," she said.
So if "today's law is very harsh and limited," as Vongjaroenrat said, if what we have is unjust and ineffective, the question becomes, "How do we organize to change it?"
"What we're dealing with is a civil rights issue," said Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr.
Since "The same impetus that passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, passed immigration reform in 1965," the bishop suggested that we're at a point in which "freedom school" training, such as that which was led by the Church during the Civil Rights Movement, is needed.
Although Vongjaroenrat was pessimistic that any reform legislation stands a chance with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Polish "Solidarity" trade union chaplain and philosopher Józef Tischner was referenced, to advance the notion that when progressive immigration reform is passed, it always has been by a combination of "odd bedfellows."
"Organize to include people who will be in coalition because of their own self-interest," workshop participants were told.
How to begin? Through dialogue – which Tischner considered "a necessary means to reach social truth."
How many obstacles does one need to overcome sometimes to begin a dialogue! How much patience in order to continue!" he wrote. "One needs not only overcome fear and dispel prejudice, but also one must find a common language. It cannot be the language of any one group, much less a language of insinuation, slander, nor even a language of accusations.
Common views are the fruit of transformed points of view. The first condition of dialogue is the ability to sympathize with the other's point of view. It is not only about compassion, but about something more, a recognition that the other, from his point of view, is always to some extent right.*  
The faces of "a broken immigration system"
Workshop participants did not only confront the issue in the abstract. Three students at UCLA, all undocumented, were among the immigrants who shared their stories.
I'll call them Mark, Mary, and Lydia.
Mark is a member of an organization of undocumented students which has developed a strong partnership with the Wesley Foundation. "Before we met our campus minister I was very skeptical about what the faith community could do for immigration," he said. But he has come to rely on Wesley as "a place to rest, to share our stories." It is "a safe place to talk about mental health, which can't be done in our own communities."
Mary was brought to the U.S. by her parents at age 11. It was through organizations such as Outward Bound, Avid, and Girls Inc. that she says she has grown from "a scared girl who was crying all the time" – to the bright, confident young woman who stood at the front of a roomful of older adults, sporting an "I am undocumented" T-shirt (which she only dares to wear in safe situations). As with the others, her status prohibits her from living on campus (which forces a lengthy commute) and from receiving financial aid.
The reality of life for Lydia, who has been a U.S. resident since age 10, is that she is "always aware" that she is an immigrant and undocumented. When she first arrived she became silent, she said. She didn't know the language and felt ashamed and "dumb." Learning English became her whole focus; she was obsessed with it, she said. Today Lydia speaks flawless English, is a model student, and dreams of becoming an anthropologist. Studying abroad, however, is out of the question: She can't leave the country because she never would be allowed back.
"My university experience was not what I was longing for, and fighting for. … It's a very limited experience," she said. However, at Wesley, "For a second you forget you're undocumented there."
Like the others, Lydia shared disappointment that the "Dream Act" failed to pass in the waning days of the last Congressional session.  
"A lot of the time the urgency of the situation is overlooked," she said. "While the Dream Act is being passed and we postpone our plans, life is passing us by."
Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the General Board of Church and Society, laid a framework for action.
While he said there has been an incline in passion, interest, and engagement, there has been "an equally stunning lack of passion, interest, and engagement on the part of those whose job it is to lead."
"This [Immigration reform] became a political football and everyone was beating it around," he said, pointing out that there were more deportations in first 17-18 months of the Obama presidency than in the entire presidency of George W. Bush.
"We need change on both sides of the aisle. We don't have friends, except for a handful, in either party. Neither party is 'our friend' on this one," he stated.
Mefford called on United Methodists to "deepen our love and commitment to the purpose, and to understand that there is no one bill that will do it all.
Comprehensive immigration reform, he said, consists of three principles:
  • A pathway to legal status for those who are undocumented;
  • Reuniting families separated through migration and detention;
  • Protecting the rights of all workers, regardless of status.
He said we must have a commitment to people. "We must be an Incarnational presence among immigrants and their families. It is only from a position of incarnation that we can truly be persuasive. … Incarnation is the way of Jesus."
"I am angry because we've done almost everything we should do, and we're here," he said, with a catch in his voice. "We cannot keep waiting for happy endings."
We must also, he said, work with other faiths, work with business, and with unusual allies. "Too often we organize around our comfort zones. Our work for justice cannot just be among our friends," he said.
Which begs these questions:
Do we have the courage to take such a step? The faith to believe it can be successful?
"When faithful to itself, politics means building a space where Samaritans' consciences can act," Tischner wrote.
"First is the wounded one and his cry. Then, the conscience speaks, for it can hear and understand this cry.
"This is where community begins to grow."*
Or as Bishop Brown put it: "By the power and witness of love, the world changes."
(*from The Ethics of Solidarity by Józef Tischner, Selected by Dobroslaw Kot from Etyka solidarnosci [The Ethics of Solidarity], Kraków 2005. Translated by Anna Fras.)