There are a lot of reasons why I believe that immigrants are a blessing to local churches in the United States, but one of the most profound is this: immigrants can help us to better understand what it means to be a Christian.
You see, my friend Daniel Carroll of Denver Seminary has observed, to be an immigrant—“aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11)—is one of the central metaphors employed by the New Testament to describe what it is to be a Christian. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), and our identity is that of a people who never quite belong, who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Hebrew 11:16).
I can grasp the idea of an immigrant on an intellectual level: it’s a person from one country who is living in another. And I know that immigrants sometimes feel a sense of displacement and culture shock. But my immigrant brothers and sisters understand this metaphor from personal experience. I need them to help me understand what it really means to be an immigrant so that I know how to live my life as a Christian here on earth.
A few weeks ago, my friends Ed Rodriguez and Ricardo Tavarez gave a workshop at the annual Christian Community Development Association conference on “Living in Spanglish.” They shared from some of their own experiences as Latinos living in the United States, describing the liminality of being—or at least being presumed to be—from another country, yet living entirely in another. They expressed the feeling that, even though they speak English perfectly and have lived most of their lives in the Midwest of the United States, they never entirely fit in.
That’s a sensation that Scripture suggests we should all feel, all the time: we are “in the world, but not of it.” We are commanded not to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2). While we may be citizens in one sense of the United States or of some other nation-state, our primary allegiance is not to any country, flag, party, or political system, but rather to Christ and his Kingdom.
My sense is that the Church in the United States is desperately in need of this perspective, which the immigrants whom God has brought to this country can help us to understand from their personal experience. For many, “God and Country” have melded into one phenomenon, but Scripture is clear that there should be absolutely no competition for our first loyalty—not from our country, not from our families (Luke 14:26), not from our possessions (Matthew 6:31-34). We need our immigrant brothers and sisters, who know what it means to be “aliens and strangers,” to help remind us of where our true allegiance should lie.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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