God of foreigners and strangers

Saulo Padilla was born in Guatemala. In 1986 he immigrated with his mother and siblings to Canada to reunite with his father who left Guatemala as a political refugee in 1980 during the civil war. Since January 2008 Saulo has been working for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. as coordinator for the Immigration Education National Program. His passion to work with immigrants comes from his own experience as the son of a refugee and immigrant, as well as the biblical call to welcome the stranger.

A couple years ago, I was crossing the border from Canada into the United States after two days of speaking about the church, the Bible and immigration at the Mennonite Central Committee’s Ottawa Office in Ontario.

After dozens of tense encounters with Customs and Border Protection officers, I’m always a bit nervous when I approach a border officer — to them I am always a suspect.

This time, however, I was charged up with energy from the event I was coming from, so I was a bit more relaxed when he asked the regular questions: Which country are you a citizen of? How long have you been in Canada? Where do live? What were you doing in Canada? I recite answers in my head for all these questions several times as I am waiting in line — like a high school student memorizing a science or history fact, afraid that they will mess it up and fail. In my case, I fear I’d make it onto a list of bad and dangerous people. The officer asked what I did for work in the United States. When I replied, “I am Immigration Education coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee; I help provide learning opportunities about immigration to church members,” he frowned and said, “What does the Bible have to do with immigration?” That is a question I had not rehearsed for while waiting in line, but I was ready to talk about it for hours. So a Customs and Border Protection officer was educated that day about immigration and the Bible.

One of the most interesting findings in my work has been how in the United States, we Christians, miss the stories of migration in the Bible. The Scriptures can be read through many lenses; one of them is the lens of migration. I have often done an exercise with youth in which I give them a few minutes to find stories of migration in the Bible. They often start naming some Bible characters. However, it is interesting how we need to be trained to use the lens of migration to find out that in almost every book of the Bible is a story of migration where God is at work. Even more interesting is how we miss the stories of migration in the most popular characters. Take for example the story of creation — God relocates the first biblical couple out of the Garden of Eden. The lives of Adam and Eve are completely changed by this move. So the biblical narrative of humanity starts with a forced migration.

Or what about Joseph’s story (one our children know well) — the dreamer who became a prince in Egypt. Most of the time, the story we tell is incomplete.

We miss the story in Genesis 37:23-28, a story of human trafficking, an action that today is an international crime. At that point in the story, we should stop for a moment and think of the little child who is being exchanged in a monetary transaction — his pain, his separation from his family. In the background of the story is Jacob’s cry; one that lasts for years and does not end until there is resolution. Today, there are cries all over the world for missing people, including young children. There are thousands of children in tent cities at the U.S. border, detention centers, shelters and even foster care, who are being cried for in homes around the world. I have often visited the cemetery in Douglas, Arizona were unidentified (unknown) remains of migrants rest. These are people whose families will never know their fate – mourning will last a lifetime. Jacob’s cry is a current issue, and we should acknowledge that piece as we read and tell the story. It should constantly ring in our ears as we read the story. In the same way, it should ring in our ears as long as there are children separated from their parents.

There are biblical stories that we tell children and we use them to encourage them to believe that God is involved in the history of people seeking refuge and safety, fleeing from famines, war, and in some cases environmental catastrophes (Noah and his family). In the same way, people migrating today hold onto the faith and hope that God is acting in our story. What we fail to notice is how God is in constant vigilance for the safety of foreigner and the stranger. In Genesis, we find the story of Abraham, the father of faith, the same Abraham who while crossing a kingdom tells his wife Sarah to hide their identity, like millions of migrants do today, and to tell the king that they are siblings. Yes, this story does not show what we consider good character. But it does show complexity, real life situations of migration, and fear of being separated from his wife. He believes hiding his identity is better for his survival — and at the end it is, God intervenes. The story continues with God coming to the King in dreams, and telling him not to do harm to the foreigners who are in transit.

In a country that values the Scriptures, a “Christian nation,” these biblical stories are extremely relevant and important. Sometimes in our congregations we have to resort to making the story fictional and theological because there is no way to make it function in the real world. However, the biblical narratives make sense and are the reality of people migrating today. Abraham, Ruth, Joseph and Daniel seem so close to our stories that we can place ourselves in biblical times. It is as if they are the stories of our families and we are reading our own stories. They help us see God acting in our lives and transcending walls, chains, bars and human borders. The biblical stories are stories of God walking among foreigners and strangers, and continuously advocating for the rights of those viewed as dangerous and intrusive by the local, resident and citizen. At times, while reading the Scriptures, we even celebrate that God helps people escape human justice, as is the case with Paul and others in the New Testament. A God who opens jail cells and breaks chains — systems of human justice. Even in churches where people would say “the law is the law,” how do these stories inform God at work when a person in Sanctuary or seeking asylum is released and allowed to stay.

While we are revisiting history and using the language of “Christian Nation.” Let’s recognize that today’s stories of migrants are also closer to the stories ingrained in the roots of this nation. They are stories of people seeking safety, food security, religious and other freedoms, etc. It is extremely important that we tell the stories of those called “founding fathers of this Christian nation” through this lens of migration. In the accounts of the pilgrims and pioneers we can find a deep belief that God was guiding them and walking with them. In countless times I have heard today’s migrants say “God willing, I will make it to the United States.” If we look with different lenses, we will be able to see that the experiences of today’s immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the United States are closer to those of pioneers and pilgrims. The terminology has been changed for political, racial and xenophobic purposes, but the stories remain the same. Today’s migrants are the new pilgrims, new pioneers, and new settlers, except without the colonizing blood-shed and genocide.

A reading of Scriptures through the lens of migration will undoubtedly lead to recognizing that immigrants today come using the God-given rights given to those in the creation story, the rights that pioneers and pilgrims claimed, and the same rights given to all of us humans to seek a better life.

As I do my work, I encounter many people in churches who ask “What does the Bible have to do with immigration?” Just like that encounter with the Border and Customs Protection officer that day. My response is the same as that day I crossed the Canadian border: Our God, the God of the Bible, is a God who is found walking in the midst of foreigners and strangers.

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One thought on “God of foreigners and strangers

  1. Hey Saulo, really fine article. Thanks for publishing it. I am glad we had a chance to meet a year ago walking in the desert. I’m still in Guatemala but am glad I can continue to hear about and support the ministries of the Mennonites from afar!

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