by Angel Infantes
Immigration and the plight of the newcomer is a topic dear to the heart of Mennonites.
Human migration is an age-old phenomenon that stretches back to the earliest periods of human history. The United Nations defines an emigrant as “any person who has to change his or her place of usual residence.”
In 2015 there were an estimated 244 million international migrants. Currently, Canada is the fourth most-desired destination for immigrants, according to the UN. Our country’s immigration policies are promoted in the Plan 2020 by the federal government.
Immigration has emerged in the past few years as a political challenge. The Church needs to assume a more active role in this. But first we must deepen our understanding of the immigration issue.
The very first human migrations can be found in biblical records. It’s a trend throughout the sacred narrative, which reveals God’s special treatment to immigrants: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).
The first five books of the Bible are the development of an emigrant’s relationship with God. The biblical migratory course is not a U-turn to the garden, but to the most valuable fruit, the “tree of life.”
The loss of permanent residence in the Garden of Eden places the first inhabitants in search of a place to live. Genesis 12:1 launches the story of the most popular international emigrant: Abram, a resident of Ur, renounces his permanent status. It’s pointed out that Abram becomes an emigrant, basing his life on something he could not see. He took a journey whose destination had not an exact destination. Abraham is our immigrant father in faith.
Next, his grandson Jacob replaces Abraham in the role, leaving home because of family issues. God cares for Jacob and blesses him with an abundance of goods and children. Same as Abraham, because of famine Jacob is forced to migrate to Egypt in search of food.
Jacob’s descendants suffer as poor emigrants by those ruling the land where they sought refuge. A divine intervention put the people on the move again. This time they migrate through the desert in search of the promised land. This journey helps them to complete the requirements they need to obtain permanent residence.
The requirements do not change, but the people do. Jews fail the terms of permanent residence. They were displaced to Babylon. There, as vulnerable poor refugees, they are exposed to a new culture, language, food, and religion (Dan. 1).
Immigrants on a Mission
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Jesus’ disciples, like Abraham, were called to emigrate. There are certain similarities between Abraham and the disciples. While Abraham was promised the multiplication of his offspring, Jesus’ followers are asked to multiply more disciples. While Abraham is promised a specific land, the disciples are sent to all the earth. God made the request to Abraham the Father; God the Son made the request to the disciples.
While the book of Acts records the spreading of the gospel, it is also an account of the believers’ migrations. Persecution spurs emigration to distant countries such as Spain. The new believers perpetuate not only the old customs, but new ideas pertaining to a kingdom led by its most prominent resident, Jesus, who has his own story of immigration.
The Immigrant Jesus
“You are from below. I am from above. You belong to this world. I do not” (John 8:23). Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace, is the first stop in his migratory journey. The child’s first visitors were strangers as Joseph and Mary were far from their permanent residence. Later, the three family members took refuge in Egypt. Jesus’ migration to Egypt evokes the migration of the patriarchs. These first migratory movements anticipate the ministry of Jesus.
Eventually the family returns to Nazareth. Jesus becomes a migrant once more. As his time of ministry begins, he spends forty days in the desert, a parallel to Israel’s wandering years. While Israel was told to go after the land, Jesus would go after the hearts of people.
The Gospels record Jesus’ travels around the provinces of the Palestine (Galilee, Samaria, Judea). He encounters many people along the way, relating well to the crowds on the move.
Jesus verbalizes his ideas like an immigrant, often talking about his favourite place, heaven. Even Jesus promises permanent residence to those that meet the requirements, the cultivation of certain virtues, to live in heaven.
Connecting Ancient and Modern
“You must not oppress emigrants … you yourselves were once emigrants” (Ex. 23:9). It was imperative for Israel to remember its immigrant background, so they incorporated in their liturgy a reminder recalling their ancestors as immigrants and how God cared for them (Deut. 26:1, 5-11).
It was like saying, if I ever forget that my ancestors were homeless refugees, I will have lost my connection with the God who was good to my ancestors and who has been good to me, states M. Soerens. The commemorative ceremonies reached their peak when Jesus intervened at the tabernacle feast, which commemorates God’s provision in the desert. As God provided them with water, Jesus offers them rivers of living water (John 8:39).
Mennonites have records of their own migration. They have experienced God’s care on many occasions. And they were able to overcome the obstacles in search of a land. For some, the journey is over; but for those seeking a “better place” the journey continues. It must be essential to remember our wandering story.
Currently 244 million people are migrating around the world, insists the UN Assembly’s president Miroslav Lajcak. Tragically, not all immigrants are welcome into our society. Many find themselves forced into a shadowy life.
Although immigrants may not appear to be a priority for the Church, they qualify for our Christian compassion. The Church needs to show the world that it is a place which gathers people from all backgrounds as one because Christ has made possible a way of life together unlike anything the world had seen, states Stanley Hauerwas.
Our country welcomes emigrants every day. Therefore, we will have always emigrants with us. Driven by our understanding of the sacred emigrant records and acknowledgement of our immigrant ancestors, the Mennonite community has the expertise to speak boldly about the immigration situation.
Immigration is part of God’s divine plan from which have emerged faithful people. Immigrants are near to us in schools and stores. Success in finding welcome in Christian community may be the beginning of a new journey.
The Safest Place
The safest place in town should be the church, a place for immigrants ready to start a new life and make new friends. Sunday morning is the perfect time to meet Jesus (the fellow immigrant) and us, Anabaptists, as the descendants of emigrants or emigrants ourselves.
Jesus is an immigrant based upon his claim that he is not from here. May He allow us to see Him while we welcome an emigrant! “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35).
Angel Infantes, originally from Peru, is a graduate of RGBI and is a graduate student at CMU. His wife Blanca is from Mexico. Together they have served in Braeside EMC and Aberdeen EMC where they ministered to immigrants to Canada. Soon they will be part of the church-planting team in the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco state, Mexico.