My son Matt gave me a Christmas present last year purporting to trace the origins of my personal DNA. Based on family stories, I wasn’t too surprised when it identified my ancestors as coming from England, Ireland and Germany, with a dash of Scandinavian and French. My paternal and maternal grandparents told tales of their grandparents fleeing famine, persecution, war and illness. They left what was familiar for a new beginning. Their stories, like so many others, remind us of the pain and courage of such transitions.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, 8.4 million people were forcibly relocated in 2020 because of persecution, conflict, violence, war and civil rights and severe human rights violations. This equates to 1 in every 95 people in the world. The number in 2021-2022 will be even higher because of the 5 million Ukrainians identified to date who are refugees (living outside of Ukraine) with an additional 7 million who are still in Ukraine but displaced from their homes.
Diaspora (dispersion of a people group) continues to make the United States the “melting pot” of the world. Pew Research reports 14 percent of the U.S. population in 2020 was born in another country. Over half of those coming into the U.S. indicate they are Christians.
How do we respond?
How should we respond to such a massive displacement of people? How do we respond to the new people showing up in our neighborhoods?
Diaspora is nothing new. From Adam and Eve to the early church, God’s people have been moved around the globe. I believe God is calling us to understand the opportunity before us. Ephesians 5:15-16 says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (ESV).
What has God called his people to do in the past?
God provides the nomadic Israelites a welcome refuge in a time of famine in Egypt. Things go pretty well for them at first, but seasons change and soon they are seen as a threat and enslaved (Exod. 1:8). Their experience informs them what it is like to be both welcomed and mistreated.
When they receive their new land, God says: “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34). Jesus quotes this passage as the second most important commandment—“love your neighbor as you love yourself”—and second only to loving God (Mark 12:31a).
To love your neighbor meant more than mere tolerance. It was an active, total engagement with those considered vulnerable. Moses told Israel, “[God] makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; he loves the foreigners who live with our people and gives them food and clothes” (Deut. 10:18).
When Jesus is asked who is our “neighbor,” he responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The priest and the Levite are well trained in the law and the function of the temple, but they are not modeling the loving God they are called to represent. Love demands that we see the need of others and do something about it. “If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love others, whom we have seen. The command that Christ has given us is this: whoever loves God must love others also” (1 John 4:20-21).
To love your neighbor meant more than mere tolerance. It was an active, total engagement with those considered vulnerable.
Likewise, in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus pronounces judgement and reward based on how we treat “the least.” When the righteous ask, “When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you?” (v. 38), the King replies: “I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!” (v. 40).
As we explore how the Israelites are to structure their God-given kingdom, we see a model of the national, local and individual. In the book The Bible and Borders, Hearing God’s Word on Immigration, M. Daniel Carroll R. writes, “Ancient Israel did not have government programs and social systems in place as we have today to provide assistance through local, state, and federal channels. Help for the needy had to occur at several levels and through other means: individual families (giving rest on the Sabbath, including sojourners in the celebration), the community (gleaning laws), workplaces (payment of wages, periodic rest), religious centers (collecting the tithe) and at the city gate with the elders or other legal gatherings (fairness in legal matters). In a sense everyone was involved somehow in the care of the sojourner. The prophets clearly declare that God holds all the people responsible, from individuals to the whole society.”
Serving our neighbors
So how should we respond today? I believe the Holy Spirit will bring into our lives opportunities to serve our displaced neighbors. When this happens, I try to remember these things:
Engage with their present need. As part of the majority culture, it is often difficult for us to understand the needs of those who have been displaced and become the “least” in our context. They will have immediate physical needs like shelter, clothing and food. Meeting these needs can be daunting without help. We know the language and can read menus, street signs, legal documents, contents of packaged food and textbooks. We have established kinship communities like our families, coworkers, softball teams, neighborhoods, churches, etc. We know people who know people. We know how to “do” American life and can use these resources to meet their needs and establish relationships.
Be patient and resourceful. A conversation with someone new to our country may include an interpreter explaining what it was like in their country and us explaining how things get done in the U.S. For example, in their country they receive cash for their labor. Here, their paycheck comes in an envelope or is automatically deposited into a bank account. This means they need to open an account using their federal ID and Social Security number. When the account is set up, they receive something called a debit card.
Needless to say, they have a very steep learning curve. One individual told me what it was like to come from a refugee camp which only provided the basic needs for survival to being in a country where their children are now learning on iPads!
Learn to know them as individuals, not just part of a group. COVID-19 brought to focus the needs of immigrants in Sioux Falls, S.D., where many Congolese brothers and sisters were working in close quarters at the Smithfield meat packing plant. The virus spread quickly causing the plant to shut down. Since the physical office where they would normally go and talk to someone about unemployment was closed, employees were told to apply online.
Immigrant employees needed someone with a computer and internet to help them fill out an online form in a language they could not read. Through the helping process we learned their names, families and stories and felt their grief. They were not just a number. Statistics inform us, but when we open our lives and our hearts to others, we learn to grieve with those who grieve and rejoice with those who rejoice.
When one of our Russian church members tells me they are raising money to pay for airline tickets for Ukrainian refugees to come to the U.S., my heart opens. Or when I learn of our 24 Ukrainian MB Churches choosing to stay open and do whatever they can do, I want to help.
Open your eyes to the global church. It is very easy to “nest” in our cozy communities and local churches. Everyone knows your name, where you work and the color of your car. When we hear testimonies of how God is moving in other parts of the world, we can support the work and rejoice in their fruit. When those from other parts of the world come to our soil, we should embrace them as partners. They bring their spiritual gifts and experiences to enrich us. Likewise, through them we have a unique opportunity to reach those who are open to the love of God.
God is calling us into the diasporic harvest field and to assist “the least” in our sphere of influence. May our hearts be tender and receptive to his calling.
“For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:18-21, ESV).