One day during my senior year of high school, I looked up from the lunch table to see what looked like a war zone on the local news. On the screen, helicopters swirled overhead as hundreds of men in shackles were herded onto buses while uniformed federal agents with guns stood staunchly by, watching. Hysterical, weeping women and children were interviewed by reporters, pleading for their fathers and husbands. I had no idea what was going on.
But I quickly learned. My hometown in Iowa is next to the little hamlet of Postville, a small agricultural community home to a large kosher meatpacking plant. The plant had employed hundreds of workers with fraudulent documents, and in May 2008, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swept in. The raid resulted in the detainment and deportation of hundreds of workers, mostly from Central America, and left their family members behind with no means of support. Postville, reeling, fumbled its way into action, with local churches providing food and support as the shocked community figured out what to do next. Some of the workers had not even known their papers were fake; these labor abuses were just the start of a long train of violations which would eventually be revealed at the plant. The truth slowly emerged in the wake of the raid, and Postville gradually settled into a new rhythm. But the signs of loss were evident in boarded-up houses, closed restaurants, and empty streets — and even more in declining attendance at school, fatherless children, and lonely wives.
It became apparent in the months after the raid that many aspects of ICE’s operation had been of questionable integrity. The detained workers were brought to cattle barns and forced through trial in groups of ten, sometimes without an interpreter. They were advised to plead guilty to the charges against them and were put in jail quickly, staying there for months until they were put on an airplane and deported. As a senior in high school, my heart broke for these families, some of whom I knew personally. I struggled mightily to figure out what my faith required of me in such a mess. I wept with those who wept, but somehow that seemed not enough. As the faces and places I knew well appeared on national television, I began to realize that this issue which was so real and local and painful to me was part of a much, much bigger issue.
Little did I know how true that was.
Fast-forward a few years. I spent the last summer of my college years traveling from one CRC congregation to another, interviewing immigrants, refugees, and the Americans who care for them. The stories I heard go on for hundreds of pages: testimonies of amazing grace, astonishing generosity, tear-provoking compassion, and righteous indignation; tales of terrifying violence escaped, injustices persevered, and hope restored. The churches and individuals who shared their stories with me are engaged in outreach to their neighbors in a way that is extremely powerful — and is witnessing beautifully to the Kingdom of God.
For instance, one day I was interviewing a family in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had escaped from Burundi and spent 24 years in refugee camps in Rwanda and Tanzania. As the kids splashed in the backyard pool of the American family who had taken them under their wing, it was hard to imagine the world they had experienced. But then the six-year-old cocked her head, looked at us, and stated matter-of-factly, “People are dying.”
Then we heard it: the sounds of construction work down the block. I hadn’t thought anything of the familiar clamor of hammers — but to this precious little girl, it sounded like gunshots. I was shocked. From then on, each crash and bang made her story more real to me than it had been before, and stirred in me a passion to see God’s Kingdom come — quickly!
But the surprise and heartbreak of that little girl’s story were not unique. I could go on and on with the stories I heard, both of the brokenness of our world and of churches reaching out to witness to the love and hope of Christ. Here are just a few:
- A Russian doctor came to the U.S. and joined a CRC church almost two decades ago while his son was still in college, and has been waiting over ten years for his son to receive a visa to re-join his family here
- A Brazilian teenager was brought to the U.S. at the age of three; he graduated from high school at the top of his class and can’t attend college because of his undocumented status
- A Reformed dairy farmer spends his free time calling Congress and advocating for immigration reform, because without it there is no legal way for him to get the workers he needs
- A pastor in South Dakota has made it his life’s work to welcome immigrants and refugees into his church, after learning that they had been shunned in other congregations
- A church from a tiny farm town that fought back against a Mexican member’s deportation — and won
- A pastor in Iowa was delayed for months at the U.S.-Canada border, unable to immigrate and serve at the congregation ere he had been called
- Refugee families fled almost unspeakable violence and risks to come to the U.S., experienced heartbreaking discrimination from American citizens upon arrival, but have found love in a church
And on, and on, and on.
After that summer of faces and names and stories, I found myself reflecting often on the incarnation of Jesus. How incredible that the incarnate God stood close enough to us to hear our stories, know our pain, and love us! That truth is astonishing — but it seems to make more sense now, after standing close enough to hear the stories of so many of God’s people. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, and demonstrated by example that love means coming close. If we, his people, are truly going to speak truthfully and mercifully about immigration, and if we are going to effectively love and reach our immigrant neighbors, then we have to remember Christ’s example, stand close to them, recognize their identities as children of God, and hear their stories. Then, I believe, the Holy Spirit will be at work teaching, revealing truth, and enabling our churches to speak and act with love on the behalf of our immigrant neighbors.