Each Tuesday I serve as an adult literacy volunteer, helping a man I’ll call Ivan learn to read English. Ivan came to the United States during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. Though his family was Orthodox Christian, they lived very peaceably in the dominantly Muslim republic of Bosnia in central Yugoslavia, with his father doing very well in business. Ivan says there were no problems in his community between Christians and Muslims prior to the war, but once the conflicts flared up, the Muslim community turned on their Christian neighbors, and his father’s businesses were destroyed. All told, 144,000 people lost their lives, and war crimes were many.
Ivan’s older sister, who lived in Croatia, had been granted refugee status to bring her family to the US. Thirteen-year-old Ivan went to visit his sister one last time, but then the Bosnia-Croatia border was closed, so he could not go home. His sister invited him to go to America with her. “I have no choice,” he said. A year later, he landed in the US, with no knowledge of the English language.
Eventually, Ivan connected with some uncles living in Minnesota and moved to Fergus Falls. He tackled English with zeal and entered high school, but a car accident, in which his uncle’s car was hit by an intoxicated snow-plow driver, left him with serious injuries that forced him to drop out. Following multiple surgeries, he set out to find a job, and has since been faithfully employed at a local factory and is frequently tapped to train new employees. He married a Christian woman and today worships regularly with his family in an evangelical congregation. Now finally learning to read English, he is preparing for his citizenship exam. This is Ivan’s story, or rather, Ivan is the story. According to Ed Stetzer and Thom S. Rainer, “A critical mindset shift toward a more missionary mentality is from the idea that people have stories to people are stories.”
If people and their stories matter to God, shouldn’t they matter to us? If so, how do we—God’s missionary people—express that? As Russell Moore put it rather directly: “The Christian response to immigrant communities in the United States cannot be ‘You kids get off my lawn’ in Spanish. While evangelicals, like other Americans, might disagree on the political specifics of achieving a just and compassionate immigration policy, our rhetoric must be informed by more than politics, but instead by gospel and mission.”
Created in the image of a missionary God, the Church is missionary by nature (John 20:21). We are called first to see our neighbors, including the immigrant, through the lens of God’s redemptive mission, and there are many opportunities. We live in a time of unprecedented migration, with upwards of 12 million undocumented workers in the US and many others who are legal. While many profess the Christian faith, others are from nations where non-Christian religions are dominant. Without changing our zip code or postal code, we can help them learn our language and culture, help them secure a job, show them where to shop, and much more. For example, numerous congregations hold English conversation classes and tutor immigrants for the citizenship exam. The Bible says that God “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Additionally, Christ told us that our response to the most vulnerable among us is a response to him (Matthew 25:40-45).
However, it’s very easy to be swayed by the voices of our society, seeing all immigrants as dangerous lawbreakers from whom we must protect ourselves. But let us beware of the dangers that nationalism poses to our soul; the world is not our standard. While there are valid issues to be addressed, Jesus showed us a different way. Evangelist to international students, Chawkat Georges Moucarry, reminds us that Moses associated aliens and strangers with widows, orphans and the poor. “This emphasizes that a foreigner’s life is not an easy one. His work is often hard and poorly paid, and he may not be able to afford good housing. In addition… there are emotional challenges: he is an uprooted person, deprived of the comfort of his native language, family, and friends. In short, he is alone. This loneliness is all the more painful because it is seldom a personal choice, hence the tendency for foreigners to stick together.”
Let us ask ourselves, what would we do to feed our starving family, or to get them out of a war-torn environment? Russell Moore says the larger concern “is in how we talk about this issue, recognizing that this is not about ‘issues’ or ‘culture wars’ but about persons made in the image of God. Our churches must be the presence of Christ to all persons, regardless of country of origin or legal status. We need to stand against bigotry and harassment and exploitation, even when it’s politically profitable for those who stand with us on other issues.”
But there’s another perspective too: God is up to something amazing in our day. As he said: “Look at the nations and watch, and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told” (Habakkuk 1:5).
Here is an amazing example: the highest growth rate for evangelical Christianity today is not in the west, but in places like Iran (19.7%) and Afghanistan (16.7%). According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2015, 244 million people lived outside their country of origin, with 43% of these professing the Christian faith. Among the foreign-born living in the US, the figure for professing Christian is 74% (Muslims are 5%). Looking at legal immigrants only, the figure still exceeds 60%. “Many Hispanics sincerely believe that God has led them here for a purpose: to play an important role in a revival of the Christian faith in this country.” Some of the largest churches in Europe are either founded by Africans or led by people of African descent.
Most every region of the world is now both sending and receiving missionaries. What is God up to in all of this? We find the answer in the Scriptures: God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9); and he gave the vision of seeing one day “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
At the beginning of the 21st century, Christianity is the world’s most globalized, most geographically dispersed, and most culturally and ethnically diverse religion. We are God’s missionary people—his primary chosen means of bringing in the fullness of his kingdom, his redemptive reign, that Jesus might be glorified in all the earth. How can we best join in his mission, even right where we are?
DR. GAYLAN MATHIESEN is Professor of Mission and Evangelism at Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.