NOAC keynoter Karen González speaks on immigration and the church

By Frances Townsend

Participants in the 2021 virtual National Older Adult Conference heard a detailed but very accessible presentation on immigration, including how to see it from a biblical perspective, from keynote speaker Karen González. Having immigrated from Guatemala as a child, she has been a public school teacher, studied at Fuller Theological Seminary, and now works in immigrant advocacy. Her recent book is The God Who Sees: Immigrants, The Bible, and the Journey to Belong.

González led listeners through the biblical story of Ruth, pointing out that it is a story of economic migration, vulnerability of immigrants, and compassionate treatment as laid out in Old Testament law.

A screenshot of the presentation by Karen González to National Older Adult Conference 2021

Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi were living in poverty but the laws allowed them to glean in Boaz’s field to find food. The edges and corners of the field were not harvested by the owner but had to be left for the poorest in the community. Immigrants, widows, and orphans were given this right (see Deuteronomy 24:19-21). González described the society working in this way as the “blessed alliance,” where all, including immigrants, were working together for the thriving of the community, not some working just for their own profit. She said that when a society is healthy, “things work together and human beings become their best selves.”

In addition to Bible stories of compassion for immigrants, González gave information and data on immigration, asylum seekers, and refugees, and talked about the history of immigration law in the United States. For the most part, it was grim–for example, worldwide only 4 percent of refugees are ever resettled and the vast majority live out their lives in refugee camps. Most immigrants leave their home countries out of necessity, for work, to escape persecution and violence, or for family reunification. But they leave some parts of their identity behind, and the transition is difficult, even traumatic for many.

She continued with information showing that immigrants are a net asset in the countries where they settle, working at higher rates than the general population. And as immigration increases, crime decreases.

However, González reminded her listeners that even if immigration were not good for countries, the biggest reason for a Christian to support it is that God commands it.

The first step, she said, is for each person to do some reflection and self-examination. “If you are a Christian, are your immigration views primarily formed by your faith?” She also suggested reflecting on relationships with the immigrant community. “Are your relationships based on mutuality or are they acts of charity?”

The next step is to read the Bible in community with immigrants. Reading Bible studies prepared by writers in marginalized groups would also help.

The third step is to advocate for immigrants, to choose to speak up to relatives and friends, even to call representatives in Congress.

After the keynote session, González participated in a panel discussion and answered some questions submitted by NOAC participants. One concern was voiced by panelist Nathan Hosler, head of the Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. He spoke of how easily overwhelmed people get with the many dire situations facing the world now, and asked how to sustain engagement in a way that is spiritually vital without burning out. How do we keep the big picture in view, but choose our niche in which to work?

González replied by citing something she once heard a professor say: “When you are teaching the Bible, don’t try to eat the elephant, just chew on a small part.” Look for small steps, because each one matters. More importantly, she reminded, each thing will require internal work.

“Some of the most valuable work you can do is look inside and sit with it,” she said. “Where do your views come from? What does my faith say?” She said we overvalue external work and undervalue internal work. If what a person has energy to do is sit with the concern, do the Bible study and reflection, that is important work that will prepare the person to do more. This spiritual preparation is what gives strength to keep working on issues that can feel hopeless.

González also told about what keeps her hopeful, in a time when immigrants are suffering so many difficulties. She calls it “participatory hope,” waiting for immigration reform while engaging in whatever way we can. She feels the most hopeful when she sees local efforts, when people are connected helping their neighbors, when local churches are serving and loving their neighbors. She suggested that NOAC participants look for where God is at work in their communities, saying, “When I despair, that’s where I turn.”

— Frances Townsend pastors the Onekama and Marilla congregations of the Church of the Brethren in Michigan.


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