Mother of Exiles
Bill and I were vacationing in Michigan when we received the call from the White House asking if Bill would introduce President Obama’s Immigration Reform speech on Thursday morning at American University. “Do you think I should do this?” Bill asked me. “Of course, this may be the speech we’ve been praying for!”
Early on Thursday morning we enjoyed an impromptu meeting with a gathering of evangelical leaders who had been working and meeting behind-the-scenes to encourage the President to move forward with immigration reform. Some were Republicans, some Democrats, but all united by faith and by what they believe to be the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger” in our midst. None of them advocate amnesty for people who have broken the laws of this land by being here illegally; but all are committed to providing hard-working, responsible undocumented immigrants a tough but fair path toward legal residency.
For years many Spanish-speaking people attended Willow’s church services, some fluent enough in English to follow the service adequately, others listening through translation headsets. But it became increasingly clear that many of these brothers and sisters, especially recent immigrants, would benefit from being able to worship in their first language—their heart language. So about 6 years ago we started a Spanish-speaking service called Casa de Luz.
I don’t speak Spanish but I know that means House of Light. For us, it has been a moving experience to watch Casa de Luz become a place where more and more Spanish-speaking people in our community are finding the Light of Christ and finding a House where they feel at home. I have often sat through Casa de Luz services, wearing the headsets so I can listen to English translation, and I have been gripped and inspired by the faith of these brothers and sisters that God has brought into our church community.
At Willow we also have a Care Center that offers a food pantry, ESL classes and legal services to Spanish-speaking people in our community. As a result of Casa de Luz and the Care Center, we’ve enjoyed an increasing connection with the Spanish-speaking community in the Chicago area.
Last December we offered one our annual Christmas programs entirely in Spanish, and on Tuesday evening, December 22, five thousand Spanish-speaking people sat in our auditorium singing and worshipping and celebrating the birth of Christ. Many of us who had been at Willow since its beginning thirty-four years ago, stood in the back and wept, awed by the realization that God had entrusted us to embrace this precious community of people that is too often relegated to the sidelines of American life. We were overwhelmed by God’s grace in allowing their beautiful language, their rich culture, their strong family ties, and their warmth and expressiveness to change us, to soften us, to enrich us as a church.
But here’s what else made us weep that evening: we realized that this community that has become part of our community is a vulnerable community. We have discovered that many of these dear people God has brought our way are undocumented. Most of them came here out of desperation, escaping poverty or hoping to be reunited with family members, but with no legal way to enter the country they made the desperate choice to enter illegally. Others came legally, but were unable to extend their visas so they eventually lost their legal status.
Now these people live in the shadows of American society. They work hard at low-paying jobs, they pay taxes, they send money home to poor relatives in their country of origin, and they long to become contributing members of their new American community. But they find it nearly impossible to make ends meet and they live in fear that they will be discovered as undocumented immigrants and deported.
God used these precious people to draw our congregation into the immigration debate. A year ago Bill and I read Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang’s excellent book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. Since then Matt and Jenny have helped lead our church elders and staff through an educational process about immigration reform from a biblical perspective, and later this month Matt will speak to our congregation about what it means for us to “welcome the stranger” that God has brought our way.
This is a difficult debate—we all know this—but for us it is no longer just about laws or policies or ideologies. It’s about the very real struggles of people we know and love, people desperately wanting to honor God and provide as best they can for their families. Knowing their stories doesn’t erase the complexity of this issue, but it certainly does reframe it.
Sometimes when I attend Casa de Luz, I don’t wear the headsets with the English translation. I sit in the back row and I listen to words I don’t understand, but I sense the presence of God’s spirit and the faith of God’s people. And I become convinced again, beyond a shadow of doubt, that my family and my church come closer to living out God’s kingdom on earth—closer to bringing heaven to earth—when we wrap our hearts and our minds and our lives around a rich diversity of language and culture and race and experience.
You see, our Casa de Luz congregation needs us—the established English-speaking majority at Willow—but we also need them, because they remind us week after week after week that the family into which God invites us all is truly a global family. And we’re missing something beautiful if we miss out on that.
Our country has faced many divisive issues in recent years; we don’t need another one. My prayer is that the Christian community will lead the way in calling for a serious bi-partisan effort to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. Since the President’s speech on Thursday I have been reflecting on that profound phrase: e pluribus unum—“out of the many, one”—and on the beautiful words of the sonnet inscribed on the bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty. Described in the sonnet as the “Mother of Exiles” who offers “worldwide welcome,” the magnificent woman lifts her lamp to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In the months to come may we live up to that vision of America.