Immigrants and the American Church


Jesus was an immigrant. Maybe even an “illegal” immigrant when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt. He understood what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land and he told us to care for immigrants who are also struggling to survive as strangers in our land.

Living with immigrants

I have extraordinary parents who really did invite strangers into our home. In the aftermath of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and war in Laos, they opened our home to a series of refugee families who — like Jesus — fled their countries just to survive.

It wasn’t easy. Our family of six invited refugee families into our 1,300 square foot home. Eleven people shared three bedrooms and one bathroom. We didn’t have much, but it is was more than they had.

It was enough to share and help them establish new lives in a new land.

As kids, my siblings and I had a multicultural experience unlike most of our peers. We learned to eat sticky rice with our hands and wear sinh skirts.

We also saw what it meant to have nothing and be dependent on others for assistance.  My mother (a nurse) treated the kids for scabies and spent hours at the Department of Social Services serving as their advocate and voice.

When I talk about this piece of my childhood, people usually say things like, “Your parents must be really progressive.”

Well, no. I don’t think they would view themselves that way. They were just being obedient to Christ and inviting needy strangers into our home and into our lives.

Immigrants trying to survive

Sometimes survival requires immigration. War and poverty can be strong motivators to relocate when the safety and security of your family are at stake.

Most Americans don’t have to go back very far in their family histories to find a story of someone who immigrated for safety or sustenance. It’s part of our cultural narrative.

Christians are obligated to care for immigrants — to help them survive and thrive.  American Christians have an even bigger obligation because we live in a prosperous country. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it this way,

“The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.”

We need to allow our faith — not our politics — guide us on this one. Respect and dignity for human life demands that Christians care for immigrants who are trying to make a better life in the U.S.

Immigrants and hope for the American church

A recent Pew Research survey on the decline of the U.S. church has a lot of us talking about the future of the church. But much of the conversation focuses on the decline in the U.S., with little or no reference to the global church.

The church is growing in the global south and immigration patterns impact the American church.

The U.S. Catholic church has been sustained by the influx of Hispanic immigrants, accounting for 70 percent of Catholic growth since 1960. Pentecostal/Charismatic churches stand to benefit from Latin American immigrants, while Korean immigrants are bringing growth to both mainline and evangelical Protestantism.

Many immigrants come to the U.S. to survive. As Christians, we’re called to help them. And by caring for the immigrants in our midst, we may discover that they are actually what the Church in America needs to survive.


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