Immigration is a current issue. Our country, Canada, is made up of emigrants; at least 200,000 people from different parts of the world join Canada every year.
My experience with emigrants at Braeside EMC and Aberdeen EMC allowed me to know their stories that seemed far away; however, the experience of these days have brought me closer to those stories.
Emigrating is not always easy. The reasons are different, the stories too.
These days I was volunteering with FM4 (fm4pasolibre.org), a civil organization in Guadalajara that helps migrants.
On Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, at night migrants began arriving in the city. On Sunday I got a message to go to a shelter and oversee the collection centre. Many people brought water, food, clothes, hygiene supplies, backpacks, and shoes. The collection centre was at the entrance, so I had the opportunity to welcome migrants at their arriving.
A thousand immigrants arrived on Sunday by walking. They came from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Two of main factors they flee their countries are violence and poverty. The “Caravana” crossed the Guatemala-Mexican border a month ago on their way north. On Monday night more than 5,000 reached Guadalajara. The shelter and help collapsed.
As soon the sun came up on Tuesday, a group of migrants decided to continue their journey; soon the whole group followed them. The road covered with people seems like an exodus. They looked weary, sad. Parents pushing strollers. People carrying all their belongings in backpacks; and they kept walking and walking. The image seemed surreal and heartbreaking.
With my van empty I went onto the road and invited a group with four small children to climb aboard. Fourteen passengers fit with their belongings. Remember when I told the joke, how many passengers fit in a Mexican taxi? Yes, one more. I grabbed some food and water and took them to a shelter in Nayarit more than a hundred kilometers away.
On the way back, along the road there were people walking, so I reached the initial point and invited others to get on the van. A 12-year-old boy was traveling alone. He was hungry. I gave him some food and then he fell asleep. I thought I had seen everything until a person asked me for food. We did not have more; then he ate the dregs.
Again, on the way back alone, I was thinking about what was happening, I decided to make another trip. I found on the road a group with four small children and a teenager. It was getting dark and they quickly climbed into the van. A little girl was playing with my GPS phone. She told me, “It is the treasure map”; yes, the treasure maps took her to the treasure of shelter and food.
I was overwhelmed and tired by what had happened, and happy for the opportunity to tell them about Jesus. This combination of emotions led me to remember the story of God taking care of Israel on the desert and of Jesus approaching people on his journey through Palestine. And this question is on my mind: Is Jesus the Christ of the migrants?
Angel Infantes (Aberdeen) serves with his wife Blanca as part of the church planting team in the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco state, Mexico.
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.
When Maria and Heinrich immigrated to Canada with their seven children in June of 2011 they looked forward to working together with their children and earning enough to feed their family.
“We’re just so very thankful,” Maria says in Low German, “coming to Canada and working together on the farm allowed me to get to know my husband again.” In Mexico he’d been too busy trying to make ends meet.
Having grown up on a farm in Mexico, Maria and Heinrich were especially interested in continuing to work in the agricultural sector in Ontario.
At the beginning there were many challenges and becoming accustomed to the way of life here in Canada took some time. Going to the store to shop for groceries and other supplies perplexed them because the brands were all different and neither Maria nor Heinrich spoke much English. They quickly realized how important it would be to learn English. Learning the language wasn’t just about finding the right words and phrases, but about changing their way of thinking.
In their village in Mexico the men of the community often learned Spanish in order to do business. But women and children usually learned only enough of the official language to get by. Their home was located on a large tract of land purchased by her church community and all of their neighbours attended the same village church and school. The government permitted them to teach their native language and religious traditions in the schools and they maintained their own roadways so that their interaction with Spanish-speaking Mexicans was limited.
But in Canada not only were they now living right next door to people from a different ethnicity, but interacting daily with English-speaking Canadians. Thinking back to five years ago, she remembers her surprise at how accommodating and helpful everyone had been.
Her children quickly picked up the language. And she is encouraged to see them making friends, but wonders about how much they will lose from their faith tradition. She would like them to do well in school and grow up to be good workers, but to not forget everything from their heritage. She wants them to cook, sew traditional dresses, and be able to understand their grandparents.
Not having an Ontario Driver’s Licence or health coverage at the beginning was equally challenging as the cultural adjustment. They’d had to rely on others to take them from place to place making her feel less independent. And since they decided to apply for the immigration sponsorship from within Canada, it also meant there was period of time when they were not covered by the provincial health care plan. It was a full year after arriving that the children were finally eligible for the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.
The biggest surprise came after Maria and Heinrich began to relax into their life here in Ontario. Maria and Heinrich had known there would be time of waiting, but after Heinrich was issued a Work Permit so that he could earn a decent wage and their children were in school everything seemed to progress fairly well. And when the day finally arrived that Heinrich and their children were granted Permanent Residence everyone was excited.
Since Maria was already a Canadian, they applied for a citizenship card for their children shortly thereafter only to be informed by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada that Maria had, in fact, been subject to loss of her Canadian citizenship at the age of 28. This news puzzled Maria and Heinrich since she had gone to some lengths to investigate the possibility of this loss when her fourth oldest was born in Mexico in 2004.
“Once a Canadian always a Canadian,” officials had told them after examining the citizenship card and failing to see an expiry date on it.
As it turned out, a little known section within the Citizenship Act deemed her to have lost her citizenship status on her 28th birthday since she had not submitted an application to “Register and Retain” her citizenship. (Many people turning 28 between Feb. 14, 2005, and April 17, 2009, lost their citizenship because of section 8 of the Citizenship Act, regardless of where they lived.)
Now as she sits looking at the beautiful citizenship documents for herself and her children and the Permanent Resident Card for Heinrich, Maria smiles at how nervous they’d felt during the citizenship ceremony in London. During the ceremony their family had been called up first to shake the hand of the citizenship official. This had intensified her nervousness, but again everyone had been very helpful.
Moving to Canada has altered their family. It has opened doors for them. It has brought them closer together not only to Maria’s siblings and parents, who were already living in Canada, but also to each other as husband and wife.
“Working in unity together with our children,” Maria reiterates, “is what I’ve always longed for.”
Helen Bergen is with Mennonite Community Services, Aylmer, Ontario.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference