Welcoming the Stranger

Hard to Resist

I guess I’m a contrarian. Instead of giving something up for Lent, I spent it doing something I really enjoy. I met every Sunday morning with a dedicated group of disciples, tackling a Bible study called “Out of the Waters – Resisting the Power the Fear.”


The study was written by the Rev. Dr. David Vasquez. Dr. Vasquez was a pastor in northeast Iowa during the Postville immigration raids, and spent many months ministering to his community and to the families of deportees in the aftermath. He used his experiences to create this study.


Following Dr. Vasquez’ guidance, our Westminster group spent six weeks looking closely at a group of immigrants who were initially welcomed into a new land, but who ultimately fell victim to shifting political landscapes and growing economic concerns in their host country.


The immigrants became increasingly reviled, but had no realistic way to escape without bringing great danger to their families, their friends, and themselves. They couldn’t turn to the government for help, because the country’s leaders made it clear that the immigrants were not welcome, and much of their persecution came at the hands of government agents.
The situation became so toxic that the immigrants, led by a small team of leaders practicing non-violent civil disobedience, eventually fled, despite their fears, experiencing much pain and hardship in their search for peace and freedom. Who were these migrants? Why the Israelites, of course, led by Moses and Aaron.


The first six chapters of Exodus contain this well-known story. We have heard it so often that many of us were surprised to learn the nuances contained in the story. Moses was a murderer fleeing justice. The Hebrew midwives used Pharaoh’s own prejudices to undermine his orders. Pharaoh’s daughter committed treason.


Everybody feared everybody. The Hebrews feared Pharaoh. Pharaoh feared the Hebrews. Moses and the midwives feared God. Every decision was made in fear. It wasn’t until faith overcame fear that salvation became available to the Israelites.


Exodus gave us new eyes to see the immigrants in our own age. As part of our study, we took some time to talk about our ancestors. When did they migrate to the USA? What stories did we know about our families’ histories? What food and customs survive from our ancestors? (I put a dala horse in our family crèche at Christmas, and my mother and father have a julbock they put under the tree. If you don’t know, ask me.)


We saw the similarities and differences between this ancient story and our own time. We identified our fears without judgement, and examined our feelings around the current conversations. We looked at the histories of other generations of immigrants to the USA, voluntary and forced, and talked about their struggles.


Exodus says the trouble in Egypt started when a new Pharaoh who didn’t “know” Joseph and Jacob rose to power. Ramses ultimately knew great defeat because he didn’t “know” God. So our group thought that maybe the first step to solving the issues we struggle with today is to get to know one another, and God. At least it couldn’t make things any worse.


If you want to know more about our study or have any questions, I’d be glad to talk to you. You can email me at , or just look for me around the doughnut table on Sunday. I’m always glad to spend a few minutes talking about God’s work in the world, or ridiculous Christmas decorations. Whatever you prefer.

Remembering Our Story

This week, our Jewish neighbors begin their celebration of the Passover. It’s also, as you likely know, Holy Week for Christians. It was for the festival of the Passover that Jesus travelled alongside his disciples and many others to Jerusalem.

The story of the first Passover is described in Exodus 12. God was about to rescue the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, guiding them as refugees through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But then, in the middle of an action-packed exodus story, there’s a pause in the narrative where God instructs Moses and Aaron how the People of God are to remember the Passover for generations to come. They are to recall their identity as strangers in the land of Egypt and remember that it was God who brought them to freedom.

The Bible is rich with reminders that God’s People are immigrants and that we should thus treat immigrants with compassion. Beyond the Hebrews fleeing Egypt, many other characters in the Bible were immigrants. Abram, the spiritual ancestor of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths, was called by God in Genesis 12, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram and Sarai were immigrants as they travelled to Egypt to escape famine (Gen. 12:10), and many of their descendants would experience being immigrants and refugees themselves. In the New Testament, one of the first stories we hear of the Messiah is that of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing as refugees to Egypt to escape the violence of King Herod (Mt. 2:13-15). The Bible is a story of immigrants.

The Bible is also a guide that reveals how we can love others in the way God loves them. Our Scriptures tell us of a God who is for the immigrant and other marginalized peoples (Ps. 146:9, Jer. 7:5-7). We are taught that we are to remember our story as strangers and immigrants, and that story should compel us to act with empathy (Lev.19:33-34). We’re commanded by God to show mercy and justice (Zech. 7:8-9) and to share the abundance God gave us with the immigrant and other vulnerable peoples (Deut. 24:19-22). And, if that’s not enough, Jesus tells us that caring for the stranger and other vulnerable people is the equivalent of caring for our Lord Jesus himself (Mt. 25:35).

But don’t take my word for it. Open your Bibles and seek out the ways that God calls us to treat the immigrant.
Here are some of the teachings that can help us to explore how we’re called to care for our immigrant neighbors:

  

I invite you look up a few of these verses and prayerfully reflect. considering the context that we live in (early 21st century, Des Moines, etc.):

  • How would it shape our faith if we actively remembered our story as immigrants?
  • Who are our immigrant neighbors?
  • What are the different ways we’re called to “welcome the stranger” in the above Scripture passages?
  • What are two ways we could “welcome the stranger” today? This month? This year?
  • What holds us back from practicing hospitality to immigrants?

I pray you all have a happy Passover and joyful Easter. May we remember our story as strangers in a strange land, and may the love of our loving God shine through us and into the world.

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