My family never came to the United States. That’s right. The United States came to my family, and I am not of Native American descent. My people were French immigrants, living in North America well before the Revolution. They were kicked up the St. Lawrence Valley by the British when that empire took control of the region. My ancestors lived in old Detroit, under English rule, and then they moved south, along Lake Erie. They enjoyed friendly relations with the Potawatomi community and were allowed to stop running. They made a subsistence living through hunting, trapping, and modest farming. One day in the 1790s Grandpa Louis and Grandma Agatha woke up and found that the union jack had been hauled down from the village flag pole. The stars and stripes were now waving. It was alright with them. They were happy to be part of the new nation. Their children even served the American cause during the War of 1812. My grandfather and four uncles gave honorable account of themselves. One was seriously wounded in action.
The winter of 1813 turned my family and others into war refugees. Their town was burned to the ground, they were starving, and they almost froze to death. Some of them braved the Lake Erie ice to reach relative safety in Ohio. My direct ancestors slogged over toward a quieter part of the Michigan Territory. In what is now western Michigan, a community of early Methodists took us in. I love the United States. I am proud to be American.
So you can imagine my shame last week when some in California waved our flag while blocking the buses of people who entered the country without documentation. The passengers on those buses were overwhelmingly women and children. They need a place to stay while the complex issues related to their entry are sorted out. Some chose to wrap themselves in red, white, and blue to block the most modest of hospitality.
I don’t get it. With the exception of those who first lived in these lands, citizens of this country all came from somewhere else. Many arrived through abduction and unconscionable use of force. Even my people, who were here before there was a United States, arrived from across the ocean. When did it become American to deny this story?
Part III of our Social Principles details so many human rights and human respect issues that it is difficult to keep track of them. Among the many items highlighted, there is a word about immigration. Under the “Rights of Immigrants,” our church takes a clear stand regarding the inherent worth of all persons. We affirm that all, regardless of country of origin, are “members of the family of God.” Note that this statement and the more specific convictions which follow do not attempt to parse the details of immigration policy. We understand that people of good will may differ over the best approach to this issue. Children who enter the United States without family or friends and without a sustaining community may not be able to stay. It very well may be in their best interest to help them find a safe and affirming place among their country of origin. Those who profit from manipulating desperate people, taking their scarce resources with promises of an easy future in the United States, must be held accountable. Other matters must also be considered. However, nowhere among these legitimate concerns is there any room for mean-spirited reaction to powerless folk – most of them children. My God, do we really think it is American to wave placards dripping with vitriol at buses transporting kids?
Moreover, this is not simply an issue of citizenship and national identity. It is a gospel issue. For more than one hundred years, we have heard the question, “What would Jesus do?” It is a good question, but it is really only a hypothetical question. If we look at the end of Matthew 25, we see a glimpse of the final judgment. According to our theology, this is not a time of hypothetical scenarios. This is an appointment with the future. The question shifts from “What would Jesus do?” to “What will Jesus say?”
I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.
Matthew 25:40 (Common English Bible)
Jesus was on those buses last week, and this sobering thought should haunt everyone who claims to follow him.