Land of Opportunity

Close up of the statue of liberty, New York City, vintage process

Have you ever, after a difficult discussion, later wished you had responded differently? I was recently involved in what has become a typical conversation for these days, and didn’t have a response at the time.

The woman I was talking to expressed many concerns and fears about all the immigrants coming to North America: the immigrants aren’t learning English, don’t want to learn English, and may just get violent if we suggest that they do. These immigrants aren’t adjusting to our culture but rather they are seeking to radically change it. Then the speaker derogatorily tied in immigrants in general with recent terror attacks in the United States.

I thought of many replies, some helpful and some not. The immigrant issues in North America and all over the world are difficult and often volatile. I share some of the fears and concerns the woman mentioned. But I know there are no simple answers.

I wish I had shared with her what I learned recently while reading my Bible. The Old Testament gives very clear instructions about foreigners living among us. Not only does it tell us we are to love the foreigners but it also gives the reason why: because we too were once foreigners (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). The New Testament reminds us that every one of us was once a foreigner, an excluded outsider, from the Lord, his family and his promises (Ephesians 2:12-19).

I also wish I had asked her some questions: Have you ever tried to learn a second language? Have you had to learn it while trying to adjust to a very strange culture, far from your extended family, while trying to care for many children? Have you done that while working a fulltime and difficult job, dealing with the stress and trauma of past violence that still haunts you? Meanwhile you feel unwelcomed and unwanted in your new home, where you may wish you didn’t have to be, but it is preferable to sitting in a refugee camp the rest of your life.

I work with the Somalis that live in my area and this is the situation for many of them. One refugee friend whom I have tutored in English for about six years has five children and works fulltime in a turkey plant from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. When she gets off work, she tries to get a little sleep before she gets up to get her children off to school. Her husband is a fulltime college student at a school thirty miles from their home.

When I come to her home to tutor her, she is caring for her preschool-age children, preparing food for her family, cleaning and doing laundry, and practicing her five-times-a-day prayers. You might wonder, “How in the world does she find time to study?” When I first started working with her she knew no English; she couldn’t even identify the letters of the alphabet. She is also illiterate in her own language, never having had the opportunity for formal education. She had no English conversational skills. Now, however, we can converse together even on the phone. She and I studied citizenship together. After three failed attempts, she passed the test. She also has earned her driver’s license after many unsuccessful tries.

Turning from language learning to simple survival, what would your life look like if you didn’t have Jesus to walk with you through every single trial and dark circumstance of your life?

I have another refugee friend who had to leave her two-year-old daughter behind in Somalia during the civil war. Because of the difficult situation Somalia has been in for so many years (more than 20 years of civil war, failed government, and famine), she lost contact with her daughter for 13 years. She didn’t even know if her daughter was alive until three years ago when a relative happened to see her daughter in Ethiopia and informed my friend. At that time she started sending money for her daughter’s daily needs. She began working to bring her daughter to the United States. It took many thousands of dollars, much red tape and struggling with government bureaucracy, and finally a trip to Ethiopia to bring her daughter here at last. I have heard similar stories again and again as I speak with my Somali friends. I suppose the same is true for many of the refugees in the United States and Canada.

It was such a great day when my friend’s daughter arrived. Several of my partners in ministry and I had a welcome party for her. Two of my Christian friends sang a beautiful song of welcome. One prayed a prayer of blessing for her. The men in the group had a discussion about spiritual things. The family was very welcoming and appreciative. When we were leaving, the husband of my Somali friend said over and over, “Please come again!” And then he said, “We need you.”

I have been trying to imagine what he was thinking they need us for. Of course I have my ideas. I’ve also been contemplating how we need them. We need them to expand our worldview, to challenge and help us grow in our faith as we share it and live it out with them, and we can certainly learn from their generosity, hospitality and perseverance.

Can you imagine going through such difficult times as my friends have experienced without being able to pray to Jesus at every moment and know that he answers and cares? Yet this is what many, many of the immigrants in our countries are lacking. Could these be the very reasons why God has brought them here?

Some might respond, “Well, they aren’t receptive to the gospel or they have rejected Jesus, so it’s not our problem.” As I think of that, I remember an incident described in the book Insanity of God. Nik Ripkin, the author, was speaking with one of the world’s leading missiologists and told him that immigrants are not often receptive to the gospel. Here is how the man responded: “How dare you say that immigrants are not often receptive to the gospel when so many of them have never heard the gospel or been given the opportunity!”

Is that why God has brought them to North America—so they can have the opportunity to hear the gospel in a way they can understand?

Paula Quam lives in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and teaches English to Somali refugees in a nearby community.

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