These remarks were delivered at the Reason for Reform press conference on August 3, 2016 at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.
In addition to my job as leader of the NC Council of Churches, I also have the high privilege of serving on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the UMC. For the last four years I have been the chair of our loans and scholarships committee, the oldest college loan program in the country. Among the many wonderful things we have done, the one thing that stands out for me is the legislation we passed on behalf of those who qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Dreamers, that makes them eligible for UM loans and scholarships under the same guidelines as citizens of the United States.
Our rational was, these children who now aspire to a college education in American may not have been born here, but they are our children. They went to our schools, scored goals on our high school teams or had starring roles in the school play. They are our neighbors. They played in the streets beside our own children, stayed up late watching scary movies with them, hung out at the mall sipping smoothies with them. We know these young people who are Dreamers. They are not statistics. They are not strangers.
But even if they were strangers, people of faith hailing from many faith traditions well beyond those represented by the NC Council of Churches have clear guidelines about behavior toward strangers who come to our neighborhoods in search of a new life. Here’s one:
When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant. The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).
That saying references Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who clearly were immigrants in the country where they first settled. They stayed there, prospered and contributed, but their descendents were forced to immigrate to Egypt during a famine. You might have heard of Moses who eventually led those Abrahamic descendents out of Egypt because things there were not pleasant. The upshot from God was to tell them, ou ought to welcome strangers/immigrants because you know how it feels to be unwelcomed. Welcoming the stranger remains part of the code of conduct for Abraham’s descendents even to this day.
Eventually a very famous person was born in that faith tradition and his parents were forced to flee their home because someone was trying to kill them.
…after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:13-15).
That’s right, Jesus was an asylum seeker, whose family crossed the border without proper documentation. Obviously, his family received hospitality because—well—because we know who he is. He didn’t drown in a flimsy boat and wash up on the shore face down. His life and teachings, his death and resurrection gave witness to a new understanding of God’s promises to humanity.
Imagine if he’d been treated the way some of our state’s leaders want to treat Syrian asylum seekers. But closer to home than Syria, there are many desperate families leaving central and South America fleeing poverty and violence for this land of opportunity. They work hard, participate in our economy and hope for a better future for their descendants just as Abraham hoped for, just as Jesus’ parents hoped for, just as our ancestors hoped for.
We all came here from someplace else, unless you are part of the 1.6% of Native Americans living in North Carolina. The other 98.4% of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. To be fair, I should be going back to Ireland, from whence my ancestor John Copeland came in 1756. He was a dreamer, brought to this country when he was 8 years old by his Scotts-Irish parents he were tired of playing the pawn between the English and the Irish—Scots that they were. And here I am.
It’s different now than it was in the 18th century when the Copelands loaded their family on a ship and sailed for the Pennsylvania Colony. Today we have structures in place for people to enter the country legally and to remain here safely once they arrive. But what we really need are immigration reforms that allow people to come to America for legitimate reasons or to stay here because leaving will place them in harm’s way. We need to create structures that allow immigrants to have the same opportunities to flourish that those who came before us have had.
May we all be so kind to these neighbors as those who welcomed Abraham, Jesus, and John Copeland. Thank you.