For the past several weeks, my wife and I have been traveling throughout East Africa. Here in Kigali, we’ve been guided by my good friend, Theogene, who is originally from Rwanda, whom I got to know when he was living in my neighborhood in suburban Chicago, and who now lives with his wife and daughter in North Carolina. We’ve been staying in the home of other friends from Kigali, who are now close friends in our neighborhood, but who still own a house in Kigali. Last week in Nairobi, we had a meal with the relatives of Diana’s one-time roommate.
The past few weeks have reminded me of one of the side benefits of extending welcome and hospitality to your immigrant neighbors: they more than reciprocate when you decide to visit their countries. We had a similar experience when we visited Michoacan, Mexico last summer on our honeymoon and were able to visit a man who had lived for several years as our neighbor.
Beyond just facilitating tourism, though, my relationships with my immigrant neighbors have also made me a much more informed global Christian. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have found Togo on the map before our Togolese neighbors were resettled as refugees in our neighborhood: now I not only have an improved sense of West African geography, but I also know how to pray for their country. Likewise, my neighbors from South Sudan keep me aware of both the triumphs of their recent independence and of the devastation that is currently happening, as the new country teeters on the brink of war with its northern neighbor.
Furthermore, my neighbors, who have had such dramatically different experiences than me, are teaching me what it means to follow Jesus in some new ways. Frankly, it’s easy to be a Christian in the United States—or at least, I should say, to profess that we are Christians. The most discrimination most of us are likely to face are to be mildly mocked for our faith in certain sectors of our society; in some parts of the country, you’re more likely to be mocked for not being a Christian. But my Karen neighbors, who have been chased through jungles, fleeing death at the hands of a tyrannical government in Myanmar (Burma), know what it means to be tested. There is nothing like brutal persecution to cleanse a society of nominal Christianity. Similarly, a young Iranian friend who legitimately feared that his parents would disown him when he decided to be baptized knows what it means to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) of following Jesus in a way that I do not—and cannot, so long as I stay in the comfort and safety of my suburban American existence.
There are many reasons to reach beyond where we are comfortable to get to know the immigrants in our communities, not least of which is God’s repeated command to extend hospitality. But relationships are a two-way street, and I expect that as you welcome the “strangers” who arrive in your neighborhood, you’ll find that you’re blessed by them in more ways than you can bless them.
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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