Guest Blog by Diana Soerens
“Monsieur Curé,” said the man, “you are good; you don’t despise me. You take me into your house; you light your candle for me, and I haven’t hid from you where I came from, and how miserable I am.” The bishop, who was sitting near him, touched his hand gently and said: “You need not tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is the house of Christ. It does not ask any comer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome. And do not thank me; do not tell me that I take you into my house. This is the house of no man, except his who needs asylum. I tell you, who are a traveler, that you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours. What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me, I knew it.” The man opened his eyes in astonishment: “Really? You knew my name?” “Yes,” answered the bishop, “your name is my brother.” — Les Misérables, Victor HugoVictor Hugo’s 19th century masterpiece, Les Misérables may seem like an unlikely inspiration for a blog about immigration, but as I began studying it with my students last spring, the theme of biblical hospitality jumped out at me, and I began to see the parallels between the struggles of Jean Valjean and the undocumented immigrants of our day. Most of all, I was struck by the challenge that Hugo presents to the Church. The book opens with Jean Valjean being released after nineteen years in jail. His crime that held him in detention for so many years was simply breaking a window to steal some bread to feed his starving sister’s children. Jean Valjean was not a criminal who acted out of a desire to hurt and destroy; he committed an illegal act out of a desperate desire to feed his family. His sister was a widow, and their parents had died long ago. She had six small children to provide for. Jean Valjean was a man driven to desperate measures to help his loved ones. Many immigrants who some to our country come under very similar situations: they do not cross the border illegally or overstay a visa out of a malicious desire to corrupt the country. Most immigrants are hard working and devoted to providing a future for their families, whether by sending money back to support a spouse and children in the country of origin or by securing the opportunity for their children’s education in the United States that will enable them to break the cycle of poverty that keeps them in such a situation. At the end on the day, yes, there was a crime committed, and stealing, just like document falsification or illegal border crossing, is a crime. Jean Valjean paid for his crime quite severely, as he tried to escape several times, and years kept getting added to his sentence. When he was finally released, he was given a yellow passport that he was required to present wherever he went, that basically let everybody know he was an ex-con and therefore “a very dangerous man.” Like immigrants today—whom our government tracks with “alien numbers” but whose names and faces are unknown to most Americans—Jean Valjean became merely a number to the authorities: 24601. The scene quoted above opens with Jean Valjean wandering desperately through a town seeking food, water, and shelter. He is denied at every turn. People are afraid of him and unwilling to share with him what little they have. He is denied access to every inn, tavern, and lowly farmer’s barn until, finally, as he prepares to hunker down under a bench in the churchyard, somebody tells him to knock on the priest’s door. Without hesitation the priest invites him in, sets out his finest silver dishes, feeds him all the food he has to offer, all without asking him any questions. Jean Valjean is astounded. When he asks the priest why he does this, he responds with an expression of true, honest Christian hospitality. Nothing he has is really his: they are gifts from God—freely received, and therefore to be given freely (Matthew 10:8). It does not matter who Jean Valjean is, what he did, or where he is from, as the priest says so beautifully, they are still brothers in Christ. If only the church today would welcome strangers in such a loving and hospitable way. If only the church would give of their resources so freely to meet the needs to the weary travelers that show up on our doorsteps. What if the church disregarded the questions of who, why, and where from, and just welcomed people as brothers in Christ? Sadly, current legislative trends in certain states criminalize certain expressions of hospitality when the recipient is an undocumented immigrant. Even in the majority of states where extending hospitality does not violate any law, many Christians’ response is informed by a mistrust of the stranger. It would be foolish, we suppose, to let a total stranger stay in your house: they might rob you or worse. Ironically, this is exactly what happened to the poor priest. Jean Valjean, as soon as the priest was asleep, snuck into his room and stole all of his silver. He was later caught by the police and brought back to the priest, but instead of telling the police what happened, the priest vouches for him and says that he gave Jean Valjean the silver as a gift, thus saving him from a further term in prison. The priest then tells Jean Valjean that he has just bought him a second chance at life, to take the silver and go make an honest living. Jean Valjean so profoundly impacted by this Christ-like grace, goes and does just that. For the rest of the book, we see Jean Valjean time and again laying his life down for the sake of others, some who deserve it and some who do not. Even though Hugo was not a believer himself, and at times was harshly critical of the Church, my sense is that Hugo’s description of Christian hospitality is what he longed for the Church to be. If the Church would only selflessly open itself up more to the vulnerable among us, we might find ourselves having a powerful impact not only on the lives of those we serve, but also on the non-believers who watch our witness.