Where are you from? and welcoming the Stranger

“Where are you from?” As a native Southerner, that’s a question I’ve heard a great deal throughout my life. We like to know where people grew up, and then there is an excellent chance we will ask a couple more questions and find out we know some of the same people or are distantly related. As a native of the North Carolina mountains, I also get excited to meet someone from the Appalachian Mountains (and please pronounce it App-A-Latch-Un, and not App-A-Lashan). There’s something comforting about making a connection that speaks to the core of who I am.

Yet, that question is not always asked with kindness or respect. A hilarious video by Ken Tanaka highlights the difficulty non-white individuals can encounter in our society when people assume they must be from somewhere other than the United States. A Harvard student was asked this same question by Donald Trump Monday night when the young man attempted to ask a serious question of the Presidential Candidate. The implication is clear – someone of European descent is a “real” American, while someone of non-European descent is not.

Migration is a fact of history. It is a constant, at times having greater urgency than others. We are certainly witnessing that in our world today. How we respond to migration, and thus immigration, says far more about the people we are than about the people who are moving from one place to the next, or even the people we are assume (oftentimes incorrectly) are immigrants.

The Christian faith is based upon the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus spent his early years as an immigrant. Due to persecution and threats of death, his family fled to Egypt where they could live in safety. So many of the migrants of our world today – whether in Europe or North America – are fleeing for reasons of safety or because the poverty is so overwhelming that it is impossible to survive. Jesus’ experience as an immigrant surely impacted his teachings, as did his own faith as a Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with mandates to welcome the stranger, the foreigner – to provide shelter, food and safety. Jesus himself said to that when we help the stranger, the one in need, then we are in fact welcoming him.

So why are we in this country so scared of someone who is different? Why do we want to literally build walls to keep out those who live in extreme poverty or dangerous places? Especially for those who continue to call this place a Christian nation, how can we say that if we ignore one of the basic tenets of the Bible?

Christians need to reclaim this vital part of our teaching and expression of faith. To become insular, to fear one who is different in whatever way we perceive them, is to reject Jesus. I am fortunate to work with a very diverse group of young women as a college chaplain. It pains me to hear some of them share their stories of rejection and fear, either as immigrants, or as citizens who are assumed otherwise because of how they look. Yet, in the midst of the pain so many of them experience, I can see the face of Christ. Each day, these young women teach me more and more about the Christ spirit, and what it is to welcome the stranger. And when we welcome the stranger, we discover more rewards and joy than we would ever know by limiting our circle of friends, or members of our community.

Where are you from? I’d like to say I’m from a place where all our welcome, and much grace is always to be found.

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