Late last week, the White House announced new enforcement measures at the U.S.-Mexico border. Among other things, these measures expand the pathway for migrants from Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua to receive two years of legal entry if they have an eligible U.S. sponsor — and allow the administration to expedite removal of migrants from these nations who cross into the U.S. from Mexico without documentation. It’s unclear what the full human impact of these measures will be, but when I read the news, my heart broke for those whose pathway to safety just slipped even further out of reach.
For many Christians, last week marked the start of Epiphany, when we remember the visit of the magi and the miracle of Christ’s manifestation with us. Shortly thereafter, we read in the gospel of Matthew that Jesus’ birth was a direct threat to the tyrannical king, Herod. Joseph was told in a dream to leave Bethlehem under the cover of night and cross over into Egypt. For me, the recent news from the White House and the season of Epiphany are deeply connected.
I have a host of names, faces, and stories I could ascribe to the word “refugee.” My work in Chicago ensures that I’m seeing a relatively steady stream of newcomers with labels like “refugee” or “humanitarian parolee.” Ordinary people who have been forced to flee their homes because of violence, persecution, discrimination, or war.
Some might balk at using the term “refugee” to describe the holy family’s flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). After all, “refugee” wasn’t a culturally recognized term at that time, and we often get in trouble when we project modern ideas onto ancient texts.
And yet when I see the apprehension on a mother’s face, a father’s fierce determination, and a child’s innocence, I can’t help but think of the holy family.
As news of Herod’s autocratic rule grew more terrifying, I wonder what whispered conversations Joseph and Mary had after they put our Lord down to bed. What news was coming to them from Herod’s infanticide? Did their gut urge them to leave sooner while their family and friends compelled them to stay? Did they fear losing the life they had built in Bethlehem? Like many refugees, I imagine they hastily chose which precious items to pack in the middle of the night while they feared for their lives.
While fleeing is traumatic, arriving in the unknown can be even more challenging. When refugees reach safety a new host of challenges await them. Like many of the refugees I know, our young savior was suddenly in the land of Egypt with new customs, languages, traditions, religions, and foods. Perhaps like many refugees, they were able to find community with others who escaped. If they had, these relationships would have been foraged by the unbreakable bond of knowing what it’s like to be a foreigner in a strange land, living on the margins.
When I look at Jesus’ ministry, I see one that is marked by his formative refugee experiences in early life. The refugees I know are defiantly generous even when they have little to give. They are unwaveringly hospitable even when they don’t have their own homes to host from. Even when I am too busy or tired to offer anything in return, I am always received by warm smiles, another cup of tea, and a steaming plate of food. In the acceptance and hospitality I receive around a table of refugees, I see the attributes of Christ’s ministry reflected back to me.
Jesus asks us to care for those who might not have necessities like food or access to clean water. But to further disrupt the social hierarchy and prioritize care for the marginalized, Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).
Welcoming someone into your home, table, and life isn’t easy. Jesus knows this personally. He knows what it means to be welcomed — or not welcomed — as a stranger in a foreign land. Therefore, he can proclaim, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
This is why I think of Christ when I see new refugees arriving in my city. I think of Christ as the child I can greet with a package of diapers and a warm blanket. I see Christ in the refugee adults trying to provide for their families. I think of how Christ would look in their eyes and say calming words: “I understand. I see you.”