Fear of the Stranger

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I am an immigrant. I moved alone to the United States at age 22, following a legal path to citizenship after entering the country on a tourist visa, then obtaining a work visa and then a green card. The process was rigorous, involving applications, fees, interviews, and medical tests. Twice I was notified that my status would not be approved, that I would need to leave the country, my work, and my friends. Each time, though, I was granted an extension. In my own experience, “doing things the right way” was certainly possible, and my views on immigration were simply that this was the only way it should be: controlled borders, legal status, and obedience to governments’ laws.

Well, almost the only way. In the early 1990s, I was detained while traveling in eastern Europe for failing to have my paperwork in order. While in detention, I witnessed another man questioned and beaten in front of me: a refugee from Albania, escaping the closed country’s collapsing Communist dictatorship. We bonded during our shared experience of deportation, and together we crossed Europe to the safety of the UK. I helped him break immigration laws to enter Greece, Italy, France, and England, where he boarded a plane to safety in the US. If caught at any stage of this journey, he would have been sent back to Albania, imprisoned, and possibly killed. I had no doubt that breaking these countries’ laws was the right thing to do. I had only been a Christian for a few months at the time, but it seemed that helping someone under threat of death was the right choice.

In Philadelphia, no one was being threatened with death. Deportees were not imprisoned or sent back to communist countries, just sent back across the border, as I believed they should be. I didn’t have a well-thought-out theological position on this beyond Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”

This simplistic view was shaken one day when my daughter Mel came home from school in tears. She was about eight years old. I asked her what had happened.

“Dad, my best friend has to leave.” I asked her if her friend’s family was moving.

“No, her dad was arrested.”

Having a parent, especially a father, arrested is a tragically common occurrence in our neighborhood, where drug-related crime is commonplace. Most men in our community spend some of their adult lives incarcerated, so I wasn’t surprised. I asked if she knew why he was arrested.

“I don’t understand, Dad. She said her dad was at work, and they came and arrested a bunch of people for working, that he wasn’t allowed to be working. And now they are sending him to another country!”

Ah — he had entered the US illegally and been picked up in an immigration sweep.

“Is the family leaving with him?”

“No, her and her mum are from Costa Rica; he was from Honduras. They’re being sent to separate countries. They won’t be together anymore.”

To this day, the conversation with Mel eight years ago brings tears to my eyes. For over 25 years, our family has lived in a challenged community in Philadelphia, where we have engaged in family ministry from the start. One of the most difficult tasks we face is helping families heal and stay together. Now, because these parents had broken a law, a family was being torn apart.

Situations like this, paired with the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, create in our community a climate of fear. Some of this fear is irrational: My own son asked on the day after the election when I would be taken away. Many legal residents, even citizens, are afraid. Christians need to assure these families that they are safe and valued.

However, we Christians are also faced with a greater challenge: What are we called do when confronted with the great need of those who break our laws?

I recently had lunch just outside Pretoria at a megachurch of 15,000 middle- and upper-class white South Africans, which overlooks an illegal squatter camp of 4,000 immigrants on the edge of its property. For years, the church refused to help that community, which lacked running water and sewage, because the camp was illegal.

If not for the tragedy, I would have laughed at the thought. If I were to only help those who live legally, then I would be out of a job. Our community is one of the largest illegal drug distribution areas in the world. We regularly serve those involved in illegal drug use or trafficking, in prostitution, in organized (and disorganized) crime. Should I stop helping those people?

This question applies to the great needs faced by refugees and other immigrants, legal and illegal, who have entered and are seeking to enter our borders. In Exodus 22:21–24, God uses strong language: “You shall not wrong a sojourner [Hebrew ger] or oppress him… If you do mistreat them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn” (ESV). The Hebrew ger can be translated as “sojourner,” “immigrant,” “alien,” or “foreigner.” In Matthew 25, Jesus says that how we respond to those in need separates the believer from the unbeliever.

Why, when faced with issues of immigration today, are many Christians so quick to move to Romans 13 and so hesitant to move to these commands to care for the less fortunate?

The truth is that our Christian communities are also afraid. Many are afraid of immigrants, especially those who enter the country illegally. Many fear losing their jobs or benefits for their families. They fear crime and terrorism. They fear the erosion of the American way of life.

I understand that fear. Our family has experienced violent situations, theft, murder of friends, and challenges in our children’s schools. We have certainly been afraid at times.

But in Matthew 6:25, Jesus tells us, “Do not be anxious.” In the context of Matthew 5, this passage tells us to not be afraid to be generous, to care for those in need, to give whenever asked. Jesus says to let the needy take what they will — in fact, give them even more than they want — because He has us covered. This confidence frees us to be radical when it comes to loving the stranger. We should be confident, not fearful. We should be generous, not anxious about what we may lose. We are not commanded to build a country, but a Kingdom.

Dr. Coz Crosscombe has served as assistant professor and director of Cairn’s Urban Ministry First Year Program since 2012. An Australian immigrant, he previously served for 19 years as a missionary and pastor in North Philadelphia. He can be reached by emailing dcrosscombe@cairn.edu.