This Thursday, families all around the United States of America will gather around tables and, just before eating an enormous meal, take turns sharing something for which they are grateful. Though for many it is more associated with turkey and football than, well, thanks-giving, Thanksgiving reminds us to express our gratitude to God for the many ways that he has provided for and blessed us. It’s a worthy exercise, and one the Scripture suggests we should do much more frequently than annually (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
I’m particularly grateful for a few things right now, which I thought might be worth sharing.
I’m thankful for the Native Americans who were the original inhabitants of this land, whom I, and others in our society, have too often forgotten are still here. We speak of the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants,” but there are millions of Americans who do not trace their ancestry through an immigration experience. Native American communities, whom one could argue should be given a special position of honor as the original inhabitants of this land, are too often left out of our national conversations, including on immigration. Most of us have not personally acknowledged and lamented the manifold injustices perpetrated against Native American communities throughout our country’s history. I’m not sure it’s quite the right response to be grateful for a history rife with injustice, but I think I, and others, do need to recognize the debt we owe to Native Americans.
As a descendent of immigrants to this country, I’m also mindful of the immigrants who have arrived more recently and for the many ways that they contribute to our economy, our society, and our church. I’m particularly grateful for those who work in difficult jobs for low pay, most of them undocumented, from whose labor I benefit every time I eat. Particularly given that most Americans don’t know how much immigrants contribute economically—about three in four think (wrongly, according to economists) that undocumented immigrants have a negative impact on the economy—I think it is more than appropriate that we express our appreciation.
Immigrants are also having an enormously positive impact on the church. In fact, immigrant congregations account for the fastest growth in American evangelicalism today. By the assessment of Asbury Theological Seminary president Tim Tennent, they “present the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America.” And yet many American evangelicals, probably unaware of these trends, look upon immigrants with disdain, seeing a threat to their culture. The proper response should be gratitude.
Finally, I’m very thankful for a few specific immigrants in my own community. My wife and I have been enormously blessed by our good friends Janvier and Marie Josee, who migrated to the U.S. from Rwanda in the past several years and who have become mentors to us. Janvier and Marie Josee are more committed to prayer and fasting than any American Christian I have ever met, and we have seen God very specifically answer their faithful prayers for us.
I’m thankful for our friend Renbow, the son of immigrants from Cambodia and Vietnam, whom we’ve known now for many years. Renbow’s faced more adversity in his young life than most Americans will in a lifetime. He’s been homeless, he’s faced health issues, he’s dealt with challenges in his family situation. But he models for me what it means to seek Jesus, his kingdom, and his righteousness in the midst of all circumstances. Most recently, Renbow’s been helping me lead a Bible study with teenage boys in our neighborhood; I’m so thankful for him and for his willingness to give back to the community in which he grew up.
I’m also thankful for my Karen neighbors, most of whom have escaped persecution in Burma as a result of their ethnicity and their Christian faith. Their commitment to Christ—which many have suffered for in ways inconceivable to most American Christians—inspires me.
Hebrews 13:2 suggests that when we entertain “strangers,” we might just find that they are actually angels. I’m not sure how many of my neighbors—or of the many other immigrants working hard in our nation—are actually angels in disguise, but I do know that they have been a blessing to me, often in ways I do not even realize. That welcoming newcomers might bring a blessing is not necessarily an absolute promise—many Native American communities who welcomed European immigrants were repaid with deception, disease, and violence—but it has been true in my experience, and I’m grateful. Though it might start a political fight at some families’ thanksgiving dinner tables this Thursday, I hope that when it’s your turn you might share that you’re grateful for immigrants and for the people who have and continue to receive 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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