We Must Not Forget That We Were Also Strangers On This Land
When I was eight months pregnant with my fourth and final child, my husband and I faced the possibility of overstaying our permits here in Canada. We had applied for permanent residency months before, but were delayed because I needed medical clearance in the form of an X-ray proving I didn’t have tuberculosis. The technicians in Canada understandably refused to give X-rays to pregnant women. So we had to wait for clearance until our daughter was born, and she wasn’t due until two weeks after our permits expired–at which point our legal right to be in the country ended.
Eager to avoid this, we went in person down to the border to plead with Canadian immigration officials for a temporary extension of our permits. Normally we would just mail in that kind of request, but we thought my huge, pregnant belly would help them understand the urgency of having our permits right away. Instead, we got a lecture from the border officials on trying to circumvent the immigration system and we were sent home to apply online. We lived on the hope that whoever opened our application thousands of kilometers from where we lived would believe it was okay for us to stay.
It’s hard to appreciate the peace of mind in knowing you can stay in the country that has become your home until that peace of mind is threatened. It’s hard to understand how devastating an involuntary departure can be until you are facing it yourself.
I have listened from across the border to the immigration debate in my home country of America. And I’ve been struck by the–apathy? Impatience?–some of my fellow citizens have towards non-citizens trying to make a home there. It feels like those arguing against amnesty or in favour of harsher immigration laws treat their own natural-born citizenship as some kind of personal accomplishment. As if they or their ancestors deserved to be here in ways that someone now trying to seek entry does not.
History and policy teach us that citizenship–especially citizenship in a stable, peaceful democracy– is almost always a matter of luck, not righteousness. Natural-born citizenship is certainly a matter of luck–the luck of being born in the right place at the right time to the right parent.
My own citizenship is certainly a matter of luck. I didn’t work for or even ask for it. My mother and father’s families were American citizens for generations in America, but even that had a beginning. Way back when a bunch of German peasants got on a boat and left Europe for what were then the British colonies in North America. A few decades later they set off in wagons to Iowa, then kept going till they settled on farms and in cities up and down the West Coast. And after a few more generations on the West Coast, my time came and I was born: an American citizen.
Did my ancestors sacrifice to come to America? Probably, given the treachery of the seas and the length of the voyages. Did they take risks in traveling across the continent as pioneers? Of course. Did they have within them a particular righteousness that entitled them to take over land from the indigenous people who had lived here for millennia? No. Of course not.
My ancestors were lucky in that they were part of a mass, opportunistic movement of a particular kind of people that was backed by soldiers and weapons and government policy. They were brave, but they were also fortunate. They were persevering, but they were also in the right place at the right time. That is not righteousness; it is luck, fortune, happy circumstance. For many Americans, and especially white Americans, that is our story–good luck and opportunity that we or some family member was able to take hold of. We can and should be grateful, but it doesn’t entitle us to be forgetful.
Eagerness to deny that same opportunity to others is strange, given our history and inheritance. Is it born of ignorance or caution, or something less benign? I find it even more strange when I hear or read of my American co-religionists expressing disdain or apathy towards those who are trying to cross our borders or receive asylum. We read the same Bible. Our Scriptures tell us over and over again to welcome the stranger, to practice hospitality, and not to mistreat foreigners in our midst. At no point are Christians commended for suspicion, stinginess, or counting ourselves better or more deserving of safety and stability than others.
“You who were far off have now been brought near” we read about our relationship with God and, “We love because He first loved us.” These aren’t proof texts but milestones of a whole, sweeping narrative beginning with a God who clothed exiled human beings and ending with Him welcoming them into an eternal, heavenly city. As He leads, we are to follow. As He has welcomed us, we are to welcome others.
In my denomination’s most recent compassionate ministry report, I read of ordinary people in churches around the world–in the Middle East, in Armenia, in Brazil, in Mexico, in America–providing material and emotional support to refugees and immigrants in their midst. As a follower of Jesus, these individual and institutional acts of generosity are so natural and consistent with what He lived and taught.
My family and I were lucky. Our papers to stay in Canada came through, eventually. And now, after sixteen years of life in Canada my husband and I are about to become citizens. But we were lucky too in that if we had to leave Canada, we had a relatively safe and stable country to return home to. Many in the same situation are not so fortunate. They cannot return to the countries of their birth or citizenship. And if stable, peaceful countries do not welcome them, they are condemned to the fruitless transience of refugee camps, the violence of life on the road, or the desperation of living undocumented.
What I hope, both for the country of my soon-to-be citizenship and the country I inherited citizenship from at birth, is that we not lose sight of the miracle it is to be able to offer hospitality and opportunity to those who need it. And that if we are tempted to forget that our families once needed those same things, we would choose instead to remember. And act accordingly.
August 27, 2019
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