There are days when, if you were walking around my neighborhood and you didn’t know better, you couldn’t be sure that you were still in America. I live in the hub of three major ethnic communities in south Brooklyn. I’m a pastor at a church that is literally the nexus of some of the largest gatherings of Chinese, Arabic and Spanish speaking people in New York City. But it wasn’t always this way. My neighborhood used to be a neighborhood of European immigrants, but over the last two decades or so, the neighborhood has evolved into something completely different.
To be honest, I’m not sure how well some people are handling it. There are serious anxieties gripping the hearts of many people in the neighborhood. For example, one particular avenue in our neighborhood is populated by a largely Arabic immigrant community. People have taken to derisively referring to these blocks as the “Gaza Strip” and they avoid shopping in the “Beirut” section of “Bay Ridge” (the name of our neighborhood).
Since our nation’s inception, immigrants have been one of the easiest group at which to direct our corporate hate. They don’t speak English, they have dangerous beliefs, they are genetically inferior to us, they didn’t get here by following the rules. We have manufactured many reasons to exclude and marginalize immigrants. And given our almost limitless capacity for sin and selfishness, my hunch is that there are probably limitless possibilities for brainstorming ways to be unkind to the ‘strangers’ living here.
As the church, we occupy that strange place of being ‘in but not of’ a world that is so often unkind to foreigners. There are impulses in us that tempt us to react the same way society does. But, as God’s people, we know that, through us, God can tell a different kind of story to the world. What a strange, but beautiful, story it could be… a community of people welcoming the foreigner, extending love and compassion to the alien. So unnatural, so counterintuitive, yet so completely Christian.
This is where our church is at right now. We are taking steps into this issue not because it is popular (it isn’t) or because it promises to pad our bank account (it doesn’t), but because it is how we must respond because of where God has placed us to participate in his redemptive purposes.
And so, we are learning how to love our neighbors; recognizing that when we do, we are also learning to love our (societal) ‘enemies.’ These commands of Jesus converge as we embody His grace to the strangers among us.
I realize not everyone lives in an immigrant neighborhood like I do. But, at some level, this issue concerns all of us. I would commend to you the thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” who said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Christians, no matter the makeup of their neighborhood, can stand for compassion by refusing to accept the label of ‘enemy’ that is so liberally applied to my immigrant neighbors and others in their situation. That is a minimal first step, but given the hostile nature of the cultural conversation on this issue, even standing up for compassion toward immigrants takes some amount of courage.
This is something that calls all of us to respond as faithfully as possible. Do not ignore the issue just because it is not on your doorstep.
Adam Gustine lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ann, and their two sons. He is the Senior Pastor at First Evangelical Free Church of Brooklyn, NY, which is currently involved in the development of a new ministry project of the Evangelical Free Church of America called Immigrant Hope.
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