I am an immigrant. A documented one. And a grateful one.
When I was in high school my future brother-in-law Billy Graham came to speak in my hometown in Canada. He recommended that I apply to his alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois.
Once accepted I applied for a student visa. Instead I got a green card to be a permanent resident. The Immigration Service was more than generous!
Later this immigrant married a North Carolina girl and moved to Charlotte. On a special day, in a large hall on the north side, I raised my hand to pledge allegiance to my new country. I was and am proud to be a U.S. citizen.
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Immigration is a controversial topic now. Who should or should not be admitted? How should they be vetted? Of course we need clear and humane laws. But in the controversy we may miss a larger issue: what does it mean to be an immigrant? And aren’t we all immigrants?
Migration is an ongoing part of creation. The birds in our back yard are migratory birds, moving north and south with the seasons.
Human history is the story of great migrant movements. Streams of human population flowed from Africa north and west and east into Europe and Asia. Our first nations migrated across a land bridge from Asia into North America. Native Americans had to absorb religious refugees and traders from Europe who came here seeking freedom and fortune.
Migrations have brought conflicts but also have been enriching. The respected historian William McNeill writes “that the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.” Our time is no different, except the contacts and conflicts are now global.
The Bible is full of immigrant stories. Abraham is called to leave home and go to an unknown land. Joseph is sold to slave traders to captivity in Egypt where he became a powerful leader. The people of Israel escape Egypt to settle in the Holy Land. A Moabite woman Ruth marries a Jewish man. When he dies she could have returned home but in famous words she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people shall be my people.” Jews taken in captivity to Babylon, are told by God to seek the peace of the city where they would now live.
And, significantly for us Christians, the parents of Jesus are refugees who take their infant son to Egypt to escape being killed by the paranoid King Herod.
The Bible could almost be named “The Book of the Great Migrations!”
The apostle Paul saw the hand of God in these movements. Addressing the philosophers in Athens he said that God allotted the times and boundaries and movements of the nations “so that they would search for God … and find him.”
And that is happening here. When I met with student Christian leaders at the Harvard Club most of them were Asian-Americans. One of the largest churches in New York City started with immigrants from Nigeria. Koreans make up one of the largest student groups at Charlotte’s own Gordon-Conwell Seminary. One Assembly of God district in the southeast has more churches than many national denominations!
Ed Stetzer, an astute observer of religion trends, notes that “predominantly white churches are declining. Yet Pew Research tells us that white churches are graying while growing churches are browning— in part because of the influx of immigrants.”
I hope my fellow Christian believers will see immigration not through a lens of fear, but through the eyes of faith: as an opportunity to welcome and serve.
Recently my wife Jeanie and I were on a crowded elevator in a Florida hotel with another guest whose name tag read “Donald Graham, Co-Founder THE DREAM, US”
“That’s a good name,” Jeanie said, “I’m a Graham too.” He asked where from and when she said North Carolina he asked if she knew the Rev. Billy Graham.
“He’s my brother,” she said. He broke out into smile, gave her a huge hug, and said, “I’m so honored to meet you. He’s a wonderful man.”
“What’s THE DREAM?” I asked. He explained it is a national scholarship fund for DREAMers, immigrant young people, building the American dream one student at a time.
“I think my brother would like that,” Jeanie said.
I think so too. And I want to live, not haunted by fears, but as hopeful for God’s dream for the dreamers, and for all of us.
Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.