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WORLDVIEW: Immigration debate: Don’t neglect ministry of welcome

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–She still gets “the look” every once in awhile.

Most folks she meets are friendly and accepting. “The look,” however, occasionally appears without warning and in unexpected places –- a grocery checkout line, a school parents’ meeting, even a Christian gathering.

I seldom notice it. But she does.

“The look” usually consists of a certain hardness in the eyes. There are other variations: a condescending tone of voice, a brisk turn of the head, an uncomfortable silence.

They all communicate the same thing: “You don’t belong in this country, and you’re not welcome here.”

After more than 30 years in the United States –- and more than 25 as an American citizen -– that kind of “welcome” wounds my wife, who came here from South Korea. She rarely mentions it, and I’ll probably get in trouble with her for mentioning it now, but I know it hurts her.

I wonder how “the look” -– and the current angry debate over immigration -– affects other immigrants who lack the advantage my wife has of a Christian perspective.

“The problem isn’t immigration; it’s illegal immigration,” I’ve heard many people say. And they’re right.

Crucial issues are at stake. They must be confronted. Unsecure borders constitute a clear and present danger to national security and the rule of law. The presence of more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, with more entering every day, poses urgent social and economic questions that must be answered. Current immigration policies generally are acknowledged to be a mess.

“We’re a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws,” said President Bush May 15 in his nationally televised speech on immigration. “We’re also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.”

How to be both goes to the heart of the debate. It’s even more important for world-hearted Christians than for the nation as a whole. People from nearly every nation and culture on the face of the earth have come to America. The welcome -– or lack of one -– they receive from Christians here is the message they will communicate to their families and friends around the world.

I live in Richmond. It’s the capital city of Virginia, but until the last generation or so it was essentially a two-culture town: whites and blacks whose families have been here for a long time.

No more. In addition to tens of thousands of Hispanics now living and working in the Richmond area, you can find scores of Asian, African and European cultures and languages. Local columnist Mark Holmberg describes Richmond’s Rigsby Road, two-and-a-half blocks that encapsulate the world:

“There are two Vietnamese (soup) restaurants…. There’s a Vietnamese video store across the street…. At the other end of Rigsby sits a Latino salon/travel agency. Next door to that is a market specializing in Indian, Mexican and American goods. You can pick up frozen fish from Bangladesh, lizard-skinned cowboy boots from Mexico, bags of basmati rice ‘watered by the snowfed rivers of the Himalayas.’”

Every Friday afternoon, 200 men descend on 6324 Rigsby Road to worship at the Islamic Society of Greater Richmond.

“They have come to America from India, Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Venezuela and many other countries and continents,” Holmberg writes.

One of them, 66-year-old Sultan Lateef, attends with his son and grandson. Lateef loves America because it promises “freedom for your religion. Freedom for your way of life. Freedom for everything.”

America also gives everyone who comes here the opportunity to hear about the freedom only Jesus can give.

Churches –- particularly the tidy suburban ones many of us occupy –- face the ongoing temptation to hunker down with people who look like us, talk like us, think like us. We often avoid more than passing contact with the different-looking, different-talking people who repair our houses, run the local convenience store or walk past us at Wal-Mart. Have they heard about Jesus? Do they know God loves them? What about their families, their clans or their people groups still in the lands they came from a year or a generation ago?

Never in human history, not even at the height of Rome’s imperial crossroads, have so many different peoples dwelt in sight of each other. Never has a greater opportunity existed to spread the Gospel of grace across every ethnic and cultural barrier –- beginning in our own communities.

God is watching to see how we use it.
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice monthly in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges