Over the years, as I have traveled around the country to speak about migration and the Bible, one thing has stood out to me: the power of stories. By this I mean stories that come from all kinds of people and persuasions.
There are the stories of the immigrants themselves. I have listened to the undocumented tell of their trek north. No two accounts alike. These unique stories exhibit their power in the telling: the hesitation, the embarrassment, the anger, the chilling memories, and the tears.
Then there are the stories of life here: the commitment to children that drives immigrants to work as hard as they can to offer them a better life and education, the frustration of the socio-political and legal limitations of being undocumented, the complicated struggle to integrate into this new world of the United States even as they watch their children processing all of these changes in different ways, the difficulties of learning a new language that their children are picking up so much more quickly, and the fear of losing control of their family life as it gets assaulted by the media and peer pressures.
These stories are powerful in the telling, but also in the listening. These stories, now with real faces and names, help those of the majority culture to grasp at some level the human need on display — and the call of God on their lives to be compassionate and gracious.
I have witnessed the tears of the hearers, who go up and hug that foreigner, that unknown Other, who made them so uncomfortable … yet who now clearly shares so much of their own common humanity.
But there are other stories, too. These are the stories of those who fear the presence of outsiders, because they see that their neighborhoods are changing. Life as they have known it will never be the same. They are witnessing a seismic shift beyond their control or experience. What to do? Why can we not keep everything as it is?
Then there are those who have lost jobs to outsiders, who are willing to work for less and for longer hours. There are also those few who have lost a loved one to an undocumented drunken driver or lost someone in a violent crime committed by an undocumented immigrant. These are powerful stories, too, and they must be heard.
It will not do to intimidate them into silence or to throw statistics at them about the very low crime rates of the undocumented. It will not do to defend the immigrant on the basis of their being created in the image of God, while in the same breath denying that same worth to those who have had an unfortunate encounter with foreigners.
Stories. So many stories. All filled with emotion; all reflecting the complexities of life. They mark who we are and shape our view of the world.
Importantly, in the Old Testament, Israel was told to rehearse its story of redemption in its feasts. That story was to spur them on to faithfulness, but also to motivate them to be open to outsiders. They were not to repeat the actions of their oppressors in their engagement with outsiders, but be accepting and helping (e.g., Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 24:17-22).
That ancient redemption story was a call to allow others to become part of their ongoing story. For Christians, the story of the cross and resurrection is to be repeated at every celebration of the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). That commemoration was to spur them to love others — even their enemies! — as Christ had loved them and brought disparate peoples into one Body (e.g., Romans 12:9-21; Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 2:11-22). That is, sacrificially — unto his death.
As people of faith, we need to go back to those foundational stories and discover their power. We must allow those stories to shape our stories. For the immigrant, those stories confirm that God walks with them. For those in the host country those stories exhort them to embrace the outsider. These are the stories that both the foreigner and the native-born share, because they worship the same God. It is this divine story that should define how we think about and act as we deal with the challenges of immigration.