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Published Tuesday
June 6, 2006
Omaha World-Herald

Bible shows the way on immigration issue


The writer, of New York City, is general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former six-term U.S. congressman.

Every day I walk into the New York office of the National Council of Churches, I pass a large, handmade quilt hanging on the wall of our reception area. Its many squares have symbols and names of our 35 Christian member communions.

I was looking at it the other day in light of all this violent talk about what to do with the undocumented aliens among us. It occurred to me that most of our member churches reflect the immigrant heritage of our nation. It occurred to me that they worship in many languages. They pray to God in Polish, Hungarian, Armenian, Greek, Serbian, Arabic and Korean, just to name a few.

A recent visit to Nebraska focused my attention on the immigrant history there. The current wave of immigration seems to be a hot political topic there, as it is across the nation. Many Christians there are worshiping in churches in their native Spanish language. It wasn't too many years ago that Nebraskans worshipped in Danish, German, Polish and Norwegian, to say nothing of Latin.

And you could find two or three different Lutheran churches in many small Nebraska towns. They were separated not by theology but by the language of the immigrants who lived there.

Some people believe immigration was not a religious issue until Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles made it one. Actually, he is one in a long line of faith leaders to speak to this issue, starting in the Old Testament and running through hundreds of generations of dialogue between faith and culture.

In March, I participated in an event in Washington, D.C., with several interfaith leaders. We added our objections to the proposed House legislation that would demonize human beings who simply may be without "the right papers" at the right time.

Others may say that we ministers have no business getting involved with the immigration question, because it is a political matter. There is ample evidence to refute such an argument in our holy Scriptures that are thousands of years old.

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens," says Exodus 22:21. That theme is expressed not once but several times in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Jeremiah.

The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah must have thought it important enough to inspire many writers to be cautious about how they treated aliens in their land. It seems that some American Christians are either not aware of those parts of the Bible or have forgotten about them.

Religion hasn't always been on the side of immigrants. In 1909, the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman in San Francisco married a Japanese American. When Helen Gladys Emery became the bride of Gunjiro Aoki, both of their clergy fathers, Archdeacon John A. Emery and the Rev. Peter C. Aoki, were forced to resign by their respective congregations.

Government added its intolerance. Helen was stripped of her U.S. citizenship, and the California Legislature added Japanese to the list of ethnicities prohibited from marrying Caucasians.

"The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself," says the writer of Leviticus 19:34. Those who have crafted the current legislation in Congress to criminalize millions of people seem to have forgotten why their ancestors came here. Many came looking for freedom and opportunity.

But our northern European ancestors could fit in much more easily. They were white. For sure, the Irish, the Italians and the Germans all experienced discrimination, some of it pretty harsh. But many didn't qualify for racial discrimination.

The Asians and the shackled, involuntary immigrants from Africa encountered blatant racism. Now the brownskinned immigrants are here, speaking their native tongue and encountering racism masquerading as "national security" or "those who are taking our jobs."

Today's immigrants are the latest wave of human beings, sisters and brothers in Christ who come seeking better lives for themselves and their families. They are really no different than our own ancestors who came here.

We are being called to celebrate these new Americans and incorporate them into the fabric of the multicolored quilt that is America. As people of faith, if we truly believe the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, then we will live more fully in the covenant with God: "If you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien," then God will dwell with us "in this place forever and ever."

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