A Call to Reclaim Our Immigrant Roots

Mark Sandlin | October 12, 2013

Panelists discuss ways to build stronger, more welcoming communities at the CWS Summit on Immigration Reform. Photo: ©2013 James Coates

Panelists discuss ways to build stronger, more welcoming communities at the CWS Summit on Immigration Reform. Photo: ©2013 James Coates

“I didn’t come here because I wanted a job… I came here because I wanted to live.” These words from an undocumented immigrant came early on in CWS’s Summit on Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. They could have easily been the words of Mary, mother of Jesus, as they fled to Egypt during his childhood. “We just wanted to live.”

The reality is, as Christians, our tradition, our faith, our roots, are all tied up in an immigrant identity – or at least they should be. Reaching as far back as Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Sarah, we are a people who are on the move. We are typically found in places other than where we began. Even parts of the texts we use to guide us on our journey to/toward/with God were put together as the Israelites were living in a foreign land.

As Christians, we must recognize that we are truly a people with immigrant roots which reach all the way back to our Jewish spiritual ancestors. In that recognition, we need to learn to fully embrace the call of Deuteronomy to show hospitality to sojourners. It’s a call that is about so much more than being welcoming and offering drink and food (although it does include those). The “hospitality” we are called to is one of seeing someone whom we may identify as “other” and loving them.

I’d make the argument that in his teachings Jesus takes that concept a step further and tells us we shouldn’t see them as other, we should see them as yet another image of God – another opportunity, another invitation, to not only share God’s love but to know it more fully.

In the U.S. we must also realize that, unless we are Native Americans, our family histories are rooted in immigration. It should be no surprise that Lady Liberty proclaims at her base, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”. It should be no surprise because this nation truly is a giant melting pot. Our diversity is one of our biggest strengths and there was a time in our history when we more fully realized it and lived into it. To honor that history, that tradition, we must once again value our immigrant heritage and change our immigration policy to reflect that perspective. The time is now.

That’s what made CWS’s Immigration Summit so compelling. Imagine a few hundred people who truly “get it” gathered together to not only value our immigrant roots but to work toward a U.S. policy that does the same. It was a day full of immigrant stories, supporting data on how immigration reform is not only something the majority of Americans want but also positively impacts our economy, and the helpful perspective from Dr. De La Torre that immigration reform is about more than just hospitality – it is about restitution for those who helped build this nation and its economy. That’s powerful stuff.

The exclamation point on our first day was a speech by the President of North Carolina’s NAACP, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II. To call a speech by Dr. Barber a “speech” is to sell short the prophetic voice he brings to the conversation. What he gave was more of a sermon slash rally call. He reminded us that the issue of immigration is not an issue of red versus blue or Republican versus Democrat. It is an issue of right versus wrong, of moral versus immoral. He reminded us that it is “just mean to not share with people what they have helped build; how dare we be mean.” He reminded us that the time is now for immigration reform and, in doing so, he set the stage for the day of lobbying that would follow.

I’m sure that our day of lobbying swayed very few minds on Capitol Hill – but immigrant voices were heard and it was made undeniably clear that they have an abundance of allies here in the U.S. We may or may not have impacted a paradigm shift in immigration reform but, in many ways, we did something more important.

We were able to share stories of struggle of immigrants with those who create the laws which impact them. We helped show that immigration reform is more about people and less about policies. We planted seeds. Seeds of hope, love and justice. Seeds of equality, compassion and restitution. They may not be trees of reform today but we can go back and water them, nurture them, tend to them and I am certain they will inevitably become giant oaks of welcome, inclusion and new life whose shade and shelter are a reflection of the highest values of our nation. They will be trees with roots which rest deep in our heritage as a nation and our identity as Christians. Once again we will proclaim to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Rev. Mark Sandlin is an ordained Presbyterian minister who blogs for The Huffington Post, Sojourners and his own blog, The God Article.