Loving our Migrant Neighbor

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

March 21, 2021

Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/496217051399172

Scripture: Exodus 12:37-39,50-51

Welcoming the stranger is a non-negotiable mandate in our Christian faith tradition.

It is clearly written in our United Methodist Social Principles, “We affirm the dignity, worth and rights of migrants, immigrants and refugees, including displaced stateless people…We urge United Methodists to welcome migrants, refugees, and immigrants into their congregations and to commit themselves to providing concrete support…We oppose all laws and policies that attempt to criminalize, dehumanize or punish displaced individuals and families based on their status as migrants, immigrants or refugees.” (https://www.umcjustice.org/documents/124)

In short, United Methodists are called to stand in solidarity with migrants, immigrants and refugees. Now, you may or may not know that United Methodists are a politically diverse group of people – even here at Hanscom Park. We are big tent denomination. We make room for folks with different political approaches. And as you know, if you watch the news, the issue of immigration is often framed as a political one. In fact, in my opinion, people of both parties spend way too much time caring more about who is to blame for this current crisis than caring about the actual human beings who are affected by it.

Interestingly though, when you look at the bishops of The United Methodist Church, while there is division among them about what some call “political issues,” there is not division (at least not publicly) about our responsibility to stand in solidarity with immigrants and refugees. The Council of Bishops includes some who are ready to leave the denomination if we continue our movement toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people. Yet, in 2018 they “approved a statement …regarding Central American Migrant Caravans, calling on governments to treat these migrants in ways that recognize and respect their God-given humanity with compassion and dignity.” (https://www.unitedmethodistbishops.org/newsdetail/bishops-prepare-for-2019-gc-issue-statements-on-immigration-racism-12800301)

You can find Christians who are very conservative on many social issues advocating for care for immigrants and refugees. That is because, this mandate to care for immigrants and refugees is all over scripture, especially in the Hebrew Bible, what we sometimes call the Old Testament. We’ve talked about this before, but I will remind you with just few examples.

Exodus 22:21 – “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-34 – “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18 – “You shall not deprive a resident alien…of justice.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice.”

Psalm 146:9 – “The Lord watches over the strangers…”

Jeremiah 7:5-7 – (God says: )“If you do not oppress the alien…then I will dwell with you in this place…”

(See more examples at https://www.ucc.org/justice_immigration_worship_biblical-references-to) 

That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. These injunctions to welcome the stranger, the alien, the foreigner-among-you are all over the Hebrew Bible. That Hebrew Bible is the foundation of our Christian tradition. It’s the scripture that Jesus himself would have been raised on – and often quoted.

So why are biblical writers so obsessed with this? It is because of the story of the Exodus. The Exodus is when God saved the Israelites from oppression by bringing them out into a new land. It is the foundational story of the Hebrew people. Their great identifying story is that they are the people who were brought out of the land of Egypt. They were brought from a land of oppression and slavery into a land of freedom and abundance. So this requires great empathy with others who follow this same path of migration in search of freedom and abundance.

In the formational story of the Israelites we heard today, we hear echoes of the stories of refugees throughout the ages. In this particular story, because of some fairly violent nudging from Yahweh God, Pharaoh, finally, in the middle of the night, gives up his hopes to keeping the Israelites as slaves in Egypt. He throws his hands up in the air and says, “Okay, the Israelites can go.”

The Israelites know that this is their moment. This is their chance to get out. They have to gather what they can carry and put on their livestock and leave immediately. They can’t even wait for the bread to rise. They have to go NOW! It is a reminder of the Warsan Shire quote that Pastor Peter shared with us this summer. 

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

This is what the Israelites were doing. The mouth of the shark is Pharaoh and the Egyptian slavery state. And they are running.

One important thing to note, though, is that the group that left was not as homogenous as the word “Israelites” might imply. A biblical commentator name Walter Brueggemann writes, that those who ran for the border of Egypt were a “mixed” group. That’s what the scripture today says. That means it was not one ethnic group, “but a great conglomeration of lower-class folk who have no time or energy for bloodlines or pedigrees.” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1, p. 781) Anybody who had been enslaved by Pharaoh, strictly Israelite or not, ran for the border because the whole city was running.

two people shaking hands

So this story, and the biblical narrative over and over again, reminds us that our mandate to love our neighbor extends to the strangers in our midst. It is not limited to our ethnic group. It is not limited to those who are documented. It includes everyone who has escaped violence and poverty seeking a better life. Immigrants and refugees, those who Chaplain Eddie Mekasha has taught me to call New Americans, are our neighbors. 

Now, I know some of us are New Americans, and this call, this story is a call to welcome other New Americans who are from a different place or ethnicity than you are. This is a mandate, a rule, a calling to welcome those who have come to this land for all of us: people born in the US and people born elsewhere. As Christians, we all continue to heed the call of God to welcome and to love our neighbor.

To love our neighbor means we treat our neighbor as we would like to be treated. Now this is where the mandate gets complicated because sometimes we think that loving our neighbor means giving our neighbor what we think they need. 

Let me tell you a story.

I used to work at the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University, and somehow, I got roped into coordinating a National Institutes of Health Grant (an NIH grant) for the faculty who worked there. They were particularly interested in health disparities, in other words the differences in health care and outcomes for people of various races. So they wanted to do a project with the people of North Omaha since Creighton, as you might know, is right there on the near-north side at about 24th and Cuming.

Well, the NIH application I was trying to fill out wanted me to tell them exactly what the outcome of our project would be. But the faculty I was working with, would not give me that answer. They kept talking about this thing CBPR, which stands for Community-Based Participatory Research. What it means is that when folks go to do research with and in a community, especially a community of people of color, even the questions that are asked and the solutions that are developed, are done in partnership with the community. 

In other words, rather than sitting around the Center for Health Policy and Ethics and dreaming up the research question, the researchers actually talk with many people in the community, hear what is happening and what they care about, and only then do they form the research project from what they learned. 

Well, I hated CBPR 1) because the grant I was applying for did not account for this possibility that someone besides the experts could possibly the ones deciding what the study should be and 2) because I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get at the time how a bunch of white folks walking into a community saying, “Hey we heard you have this problem, and here’s how we are going to fix it” is NOT fully loving our neighbors. 

To love our neighbors, the first thing we have to do is listen. Rev. Mike Mather is a pastor formerly in Indianapolis (now in Boulder, CO), and he practices an approach that is another alphabet soup: ABCD. It is called “Asset-Based Community Development.” Rev. Mather says that “To love one’s neighbor is to afford them the same dignity, consideration, and freedom that you desire for yourself.” So ABCD, like CBPR, starts with listening. 

But the additional focus of ABCD is this idea of “asset-based.” In other words, the community with which we are in relationship is filled with people who have assets – people who are gifted. The people who we seek to know and serve and be in solidarity with have great strengths, and if we listen, we can find out what those strengths are, as well as what some needs might be, and we can empower the community rather than create a hierarchy where “we” (whoever we is) have all the resources and all the answers, and “they” do not. 

To love our New American neighbors, we have to listen, learn about their many gifts and strengths, and hear how we might walk alongside them. 

That is our plan here at Hanscom Park church. We started it last summer, just asking and listening and trying to identify how we can come alongside New Americans to support and be in community with them. When Pastor Peter gets back this summer, his first job is to listen, to hear the strengths of New Americans, to hear the needs of New Americans, and to figure out how we can not just serve people but empower people. That means that we don’t have all the answers. That is exactly how you love your neighbor: by encountering them as equals, by assuming they are as gifted as you are, and by working alongside them to make the community better for all of us.

It is going to be a blessing. We will each get to be a part of a “mixed multitude” as the scripture declares: unique but connected in our identity as the people of God. As we do this work, I suspect, we will find that we are ALL being liberated as we are freed from our narrow understandings (just like I was when I didn’t get why we would bother with CBPR), freed from our preferences to be and to gather just how we have been and gathered before, and freed for creating a new community that reflects God’s glorious diversity and honors each person as fully human with so many gifts to give.

Friends, I don’t like rules. 

But I cannot wait to do what God requires us to do and love our neighbors.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

——

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1) In ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development), every person in the community is asked about their strengths through this question: what are three things that you know how do to well enough that you could teach someone else? How would you answer that question?

2) The community is also asked: what are three things you would like to learn how to do? What are three things you would like to learn how to do? 

3) Are there any themes in your group of strengths you share or things one person would like to learn that someone else could teach?

4) What is one thing that you learned or one experience you had with someone who was not born in the United States that has made your life richer, more interesting, or more meaningful?

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