For the past several weeks, my wife and I have found ourselves unexpectedly homeless. By the time this blog posts, we’ll be on a month-long vacation to East Africa, and since our apartment was going to be sitting empty for so long anyway, we offered it to a family from our church in need of a place to stay temporarily. The timing of their needed didn’t overlap perfectly with our trip departure, though, so for the three or four weeks prior to our departure, we’ve been couch-, bed-, and floor-surfing, staying with family and friends. During the two weeks before I left for Africa, I slept in about six different locations.
We’re very grateful for the various kind folks that have hosted us, and we haven’t for a moment regretted the decision to offer up our home, but we’ve experienced a strange sense of displacement over the past few weeks. Even when staying with close friends or extended family, there’s a sense that we don’t quite belong: we’re warmly-welcomed guests, but we don’t have a place of our own to go back to at the end of the day. I’m suddenly much more self-conscious than normal about where I throw my dirty clothes. I’m not sure if I can storm the refrigerator when I’m hungry, or use the shampoo in the shower. Diana texted me a few weeks ago and said she would see me at home; I had to text back and ask for clarification on which temporary “home” we would be sleeping.
I’ve thought more than once these past few weeks about the experiences of my immigrant friends and neighbors. Though immigrants usually do have their own homes, many feel (or are made to feel) that they don’t quite belong. Even when welcomed by the community into which they move (which is by no means a given, especially in certain parts of the United States), the culture around them is different and foreign. Though most are grateful to be in the United States, they’re still grieving what was lost. Even those who have been in the United States for a long time, when they speak of what’s happening “back home,” are more likely referring to the Philippines, Kenya, or Honduras than to their current place of residence. Displacement—even under the best, most voluntary of circumstances, though perhaps much more so when migration occurs under duress—almost always involves some degree of trauma. In my own small way (very small, because our sojourn is brief, and was not forced at the end of a sword), I’ve been resonating lately with the Psalmist’s exilic lament:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willowsthere
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
As I was reflecting upon this strange sensation of displacement, and on how the immigrants in my neighborhood might experience this on a different level, the Lord reminded me that, as Christians, we’re never supposed to be fully “at home” on this earth. Scripture teaches, as one of the central metaphors of our faith, that we are all “aliens and strangers” on earth (1 Chronicles 29:15, 1 Peter 2:11). “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), and, like the saints throughout history, we are to be constantly yearning for and seeking after that better country (Hebrews 11:13-14).
One of the vital ways that the native-born Americans within the Church need our immigrant brothers and sisters is to help us understand this metaphor, translating their own experience. We sing in church, as the old hymn says, that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through,” but we sure act like this world and this country are our home. In fact, I suspect that many American churches have sung “God bless America, my home sweet home,” more recently and more regularly than they’ve sung about our alien status here. I think that’s one reason why embracing immigrants is so difficult for some American Christians: we love this country, we want to keep it just as it is, and we want to hold on to our share of its resources (a concern fueled by a misunderstanding of the economics of immigration).
Of course, in one sense, America is my home; just as having a Heavenly Father does not mean I have no earthly father, the doctrine that our true citizenship is in heaven does not mean I throw out my American passport. But Scripture reminds me not to hold this place too tightly or to forget where—and in whom—my ultimate allegiances 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 atWorld Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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