Last week, I was asked to talk about immigration at a meeting of missions pastors and mission agency leaders. My role was primarily to interview a woman from a local church whom I’d met just once before, and of whose story I knew just snippets. I knew that Tabitha was originally from Zambia, in southern Africa, and that she had for several years operated a vibrant ministry within a local African-American Church reaching out to African refugees and other immigrants.
Tabitha, it turns out, is an undocumented immigrant herself. After coming to faith as a child, she and her husband had a vibrant ministry amongst young people through Campus Crusade for Christ in Zambia for several years. Eventually, Tabitha and her husband felt God was calling them to share the gospel in the U.S. They came and went on several occasions, always entering on valid visas.
After September 11, 2001, though, Tabitha’s husband’s visa was denied, arbitrarily from their perspective. Tabitha stayed on in the United States with her daughter and her family, continuing in her ministry. After a while, she was ready to return to her husband in Africa—but she learned that, if she did, she would be ineligible to return to the U.S., and to her family here, for at least ten years.
On one occasion, while traveling via bus to upstate New York to visit a friend facing a personal crisis, Tabitha was stopped by immigration officers. When asked if she was a citizen, she honestly replied that she was not, and was detained. Eventually, she was called to Immigration Court for a deportation hearing, and she reports back every several months while she awaits the judge’s decision. Her best hope is that she will be granted a green card through her daughter—a recently naturalized citizen—which would allow her to travel back to Africa and be with her husband, without closing the door on visiting her daughter and grandchild for a decade or more.
What’s incredible about Tabitha’s story is not her legal status, though: it’s how she lives out her faith in spite of her lack of legal status. Tabitha takes the biblical commands to extend hospitality to strangers very seriously. She’s opened up her home to others in distress, including to twin teenagers who were victims of human trafficking, whom Tabitha has taken in as her foster children. Over the past several years, more than fifty people facing foreclosure or eviction, fleeing abuse, or facing other challenges have lived on a temporary basis with Tabitha. While she is a particular advocate for African refugees and other immigrants—translating, helping with physical needs as the Lord provides, and discipling them into deeper relationships with Jesus—she has opened her home to immigrants from other continents as well. At one point, another immigrant woman—a believer from China—took note of Tabitha’s generous hospitality and offered her a larger house with which to welcome more people.
Tabitha ministers throughout her community without the benefit of pay—without a Social Security card, she cannot lawfully accept employment, but she finds that God provides in unexpected ways. Even still, she displays a generosity and hospitality that are rare in our time and cultural context. For Tabitha, it is simply obedience to her Savior, who told his followers that by welcoming a stranger, they were welcoming him (Matthew 25:35-40).
Tabitha defies a lot of the most common stereotypes about undocumented immigrants: she didn’t enter the country illegally, she’s not from Mexico, she speaks English fluently—and she’s certainly not a menace to be feared. To the contrary: she’s teaching the rest of us how to faithfully extend hospitality, even to strangers. She reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: Jesus could have made the guy beat up on the side of the road to Jericho a Samaritan, then made and the Israelite the noble neighbor who models love and compassion. But Jesus challenged his listeners’ assumptions: it was the Samaritan, a member of a group of outsiders despised by many in Israelite society, whom Jesus puts in the role of a good neighbor who shows love to someone in need. And he calls us to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).