I gathered with hundreds of people to worship and pray on a Wednesday night not long ago. Only a handful of us spoke fluent English and about the same number were legal US citizens. I spoke to them while a young woman stood next to me in the pulpit, interpreting my words into Spanish. Moments earlier, she had led us as we sang "The Revelation Song" in the same language. I was only 20 minutes from my home and my church.
That night, I again realized my city was more diverse than the mostly white, middle-class suburbia where I spend most of my time. That night, in my own city, I suddenly felt like the outsider, invited into a gathering where culture and language divided us. Our only common denominators were the scriptures we studied, the Christ we followed and the communal prayers that echoed upward into the cold night air.
These were not hardened criminals on the run, but families who had worked all day and studied in classrooms since early morning. They were grandparents, high school students, and married couples. I did not hear all their stories that night, but I heard a few. I met men who had built a successful landscaping firm with hundreds of clients and there was a woman who went from cleaning a few homes to running her own business with multiple employees. Her pastor had told her that America rewards honest, hard work. She believed him.
I found new friends that night and a new viewpoint. God knew I needed a new frame of reference in order to get a new perspective on the plight of immigrants in our country. I know many of my friends and those in my congregation will argue that "our laws need to be followed" and "we need those jobs for our own citizens". I understand the anger and frustration caused by the broken promises from politicians and fanned by the fear-mongering from pundits on TV. I just wish you had been with me that night.
Everyone does not fit neatly into my story. There are bad people who have come to our country illegally and have committed atrocities. They need to be deported and sentenced. Those are the few, though, and do not represent the remaining 11-million living here peaceably and quietly.
When I am caught in this tension, I sit still and listen to Jesus speaking to me in the scriptures. I know for certain he loves them as much as me. He wants them to thrive and not be subjected to threats and pain. He has watched them die from dehydration in the deserts. He hears their prayers and knows them by name. He speaks their language and understands their dilemma. He knows they miss their families and they feel unwanted and rejected in the only place they can go for help. Jesus also had to flee his country once and live in a distant Egypt. I am sure he and his teenage parents broke some immigration laws along the way. I am also certain someone in Egypt helped them because no one survives long in a distant land without some new friends.
I wish the immigration system was less expensive and easier to navigate. It is neither. I know this is a political land mine and I'm already bracing myself for the onslaught of comments meant to enlighten and correct me. I confess, I do not have all the answers to a very complicated social crisis, but I was there that night and I worshipped with them. I felt the same Holy Spirit at work that I sense every Sunday with my own congregation. I believe if we would gather with our brothers and sisters, hold hands and pray for one another, we could be a catalyst for hope in each other's lives. We can help solve this. Jesus will not be offended, I promise.