Throughout Scripture, God consistently reveals his deep concern for the poor, the vulnerable and the strangers by calling his people to care for them (see Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10; 19:33-34; and Deuteronomy 24:21; 27:19).
However, time and again they treated foreigners ambiguously, ignored what God required of them (see Micah 6:8) or abandoned altogether his ordinances to care for the alien.
In spite of their rejection toward foreigners, God repeatedly uses aliens to play a key role in accomplishing his mission and purposes (see Joshua 2:1-21; Ruth 4:16-17).
God’s agenda has not changed. He still calls his people, the church, to be a community, a family that welcomes and cares for the poor and vulnerable (see Matthew 25:35; Hebrews 13:2), which include, among many others, immigrants—documented and undocumented.
In the Old Testament, there are at least three terms that refer to the English word alien or immigrant. The original Hebrew terms are “ger,” “zar” and “nokri.”
Depending on the version of the Bible, the English renders these terms as alien, sojourner, stranger, foreigner, immigrant or temporary resident alien.
The most common is the Hebrew word, “ger,” which describes a non-Israelite foreigner who has settled into a new community and has no land or a family support network.
This term could clearly describe the reality of Latinas and Latinos who are undocumented immigrants.
Immigrants live in the shadows of reality. They come to live in a land where their labor is desired and needed, yet they are unwanted and unwelcome.
They live half-lives in what, for them, is a strange culture in which they cannot fully integrate their lives into the life of the community.
They live in constant fear. They live alienated lives.
Daniel Groody asserts that, “[The experience of immigration] leaves an indelible mark on the heart of the immigrant. It forces one to be a stranger in a foreign land, a pilgrim without a home.”
They experience an excruciating alienation from all that is well known and intimate for them: family, culture, God and even themselves.
Immigration is a highly emotional experience with heartbreaking consequences, not only for the individual migrating but also for the families, relatives and communities left behind.
Those of us who have not gone through this harrowing experience may rightly wonder, “What would lead people to risk their lives? What kind of conditions, circumstances and pressures would lead people to leave their families, women endanger their children and even face the prospects of torturous deaths?” Reponses are bountiful.
Some view immigration as a strategy of survival and development that individuals and families adopt in the context of global socioeconomic and political disparities and instabilities.
Others argue it is their devotion to family and work—two central tenets of American culture—that propels them in their journey to the United States.
Constantino and Teresa, a couple from Oaxaca, Mexico, that I met a few years ago told me why they took the chance.
“Why did you take such a risk and leave your children with relatives?” I asked.
“Why not, if we have nothing? We have no land; we have no house and no food to feed our children,” Constantino replied. “Why not go through all this peril if after working for two or three years, we will have enough money to buy land to produce crops to feed our family and build a decent house to live in?”
Constantino and Teresa went back to Oaxaca over a year ago. They worked hard as farm workers and saved enough money to build a house and buy land to grow “rosa de Jamaica” (Hibiscus tea), which has become their family business.
A few months ago, my wife received a surprise call from Teresa. Besides saying hello, she wanted to tell her she had a new baby and that they were doing very well.
In a sense, Comunidad Nueva Esperanza, our Hispanic church in Ravenswood, West Virginia, became a family for them while they lived in the U.S.
The church as God’s household (see Ephesians 2:19) is called to share Christ’s love and to provide support and care to immigrants who live in the shadows and are often invisible.
I believe that as we embrace the gift of hospitality bestowed by the spirit there will be a home, a community, a family for migrant people wherever there is a church.
As Loida Martell-Otero from Palmer Theological Seminary rightly proclaims, “If [the church] truly loves God, [she] is obligated to treat and love strangers as familia.”
Juan Aragón is the Hispanic ministries’ strategist for the West Virginia Baptist Convention of the American Baptist Churches, USA. A version of this article first appeared in the August-September 2014 edition of The West Virginia Baptist Newsletter and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jaragongarcia.
Editor’s note: Our documentary “Gospel Without Borders” brings more light and less heat to the issue of immigration. It separates myth from fact and examines what the Bible says about treatment of the “stranger.” The film is airing on the Soul of the South TV network this week. You can order the film here. Stations and air times are available here.