When I’m asked how I became interested in immigration, I sometimes mention that I grew up in a part of the country—Northeast Wisconsin—where there really aren’t many immigrants and that, as such, for lack of meaningful relationships, most of my opinions about the topic until a few years ago were formed by television and other media. That’s mostly true, but I was reminded this weekend, while up in my hometown of Neenah, Wisconsin to celebrate Mother’s Day, of an important exception. And I also realized a profound way that my mother has impacted the way that I think about immigration.
When I was two years old and my younger brother an infant, my mother met another young mother, Esther, in the nursing mothers’ room at our church. Esther had immigrated recently from Mexico. Struggling to learn English and understand a new culture, my mom sensed that Esther needed a friend, so she invited her to our house for a meal. When Esther came later that week, she quickly confided to my mom that she was in a very abusive marriage. Afraid for her own safety and that of her daughter, but without friends or family in a new country, Esther did not know what to do.
My parents invited Esther to move into our house, promising that it would be a safe place for as long as she needed it. She and her daughter lived with us for several months as they rebuilt their lives. They became, for those few months, just another part of our family. After several months, my parents helped Esther and her daughter move into their own apartment. Eventually, Esther earned her college degree and became a high school Spanish teacher. Though I have only vague recollections of the time that she lived with us, I grew up visiting Esther’s house often. To this day, she says that my mother is her best friend.
My mother is a great believer in hospitality: not just in cooking a nice meal or keeping the house tidy and comfortable—though she does those things well—but in a true hospitality faithful to the etymology of the original Greek word philoxenia: literally, “the love of strangers.” She knows that by welcoming a relative stranger like Esther—and the string of other folks that lived temporarily in our basement at various points in my childhood—she is in some unique way welcoming her Lord (Matt. 25:35).
This sort of genuine hospitality is rare in our contemporary American society, where we learn to be afraid of strangers, not to welcome them into our homes. It only recently occurred to me how much my mother’s embrace of an immigrant like Esther must have affected the ways that I respond to immigrants. As I prepare to get married in the next several weeks and begin to think about the possibility of having kids of my own someday, it’s also a reminder that, while teaching kids to be faithful to the biblical commands to welcome immigrants is important, modeling that for them is much more so.
Thanks, Mom, for teaching me a valuable lesson early in life—and ever since. I love you!
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. He is Jane Soerens’ son. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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