When David Fraccaro preached his first sermon to his first congregation—a small United Church of Christ flock in New Jersey—a man got up halfway through and walked out. Needless to say, that was not the reaction this son of a UCC minister hoped for.
David hadn’t tried to go for shock value. He didn’t preach fire and brimstone, or address sexual promiscuity, or lay out a bold plan to transform the church.
The man walked out because David told stories of his work visiting detained immigrants and asylum seekers held in a New Jersey detention center, one of 400 around the country. David preached of the men and women he had met from Somalia and Tibet, the Ivory Coast and Kashmir, who were awaiting a judicial decision on their immigration/asylum status. He shared that he believed theologically these were the strangers Jesus spoke of.
For David, this understanding of the stranger as neighbor comes out of a deeply rooted theology that all humans are put on earth as pilgrims on the same journey. Because of this, he refers to immigrants as undocumented rather than illegal—because God would never make it illegal for one of God’s children to walk as equal with the others. For him, the immigration debate isn’t just politics: It’s faith.
Sitting in that detention center, David’s new friends were treated as criminals, not neighbors—stripped of their possessions, forced to wear prison uniforms, separated from him by a thick pane of glass. David, looking through a religious lens, saw them as equals. And as David got to know the other people visiting the detainees, he learned that they were nurses, businesspeople, students, artists, and scientists. But they were also Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and secularists—and though they held diverse beliefs, they were there out of theological convictions as well.
David began to see the theology of “stranger as neighbor” in other faiths. He recognized stories of migration in scriptures from diverse traditions, from the flight out of Egypt for Jews to the Hijra from Mecca to Medina for Muslims. He learned that Americans of diverse faiths had particular attachment to migration stories—either they or their ancestors had immigrated here, after all. He learned about how these traditions have changed based on the migration of populations, developments that continue to evolve in our increasingly globalized 21st century. He saw that he shared with his fellow visitors from different faiths the common value of respect for human life.
And just as David recognized the interfaith co-operation on his side of the glass, he saw the same on the other side: how the African Muslim detainees risked solitary confinement for speaking up when the Bible was ripped out of South American Christian hands during routine head counts, or how Tibetan women taught Sri Lankan Hindus how to make traditional paper flower bouquets.
Back at his church, as David continued to offer his preaching and theological perspective and form relationships with his congregation, they got a deeper sense of who he was. People were taken by his conviction and his interpretation of the Christian tradition, and by the kinds of interfaith relationships he was forming on both sides of the glass. And one day, three years later, one of his congregants took a day off from work to drive him the hour to the center so he could do his good work.
Today, David works at the Interfaith Youth Core developing the “Stranger to Neighbor” initiative that seeks to build greater interfaith collaboration and friendship between diverse communities of faith and their immigrant and refugee neighbors.
Eboo Patel is founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.