I have a lot swirling around in my head this morning.
I spent this past week compiling a research project and writing an academic article on missionary methods to immigrants around the turn of the nineteenth century. Sounds boring, I know. But if you can get past how that first sounds, it was fascinating, and very, very applicable to today.
The period between 1880 and 1920 is often referred to as the first great wave of immigration. That’s when our cities exploded into the sky and literally tens of millions of immigrants landed in America. The era was a whirlwind of social change. Previous immigration all came from basically the same places: Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. They were basically all Anglos. But not any more. Now they were coming from Italy, Romania, Russia, and a whole lot of places where people were seen as a foreign race. In the span of just a few decades, being American no longer meant being Anglo-Saxon.
But then again… it never meant that.
You see, the whole time America was in an upheaval from foreign immigration, it was licking its wounds from a fairly recent Civil War. America was still deciding if it wanted to consider African Americans people.
In the middle of my research, I ran across the following quote:
The test of religion is ultimately a very simple one. If we do not love those whom we have seen, we cannot love those whom we have not seen… If we do not love our brethren here, how can we love our brethren elsewhere except as a pious sentimentality? And if we do not love those we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen?
The quote was by a man named Hugh Black. Black was writing concerning this wave of immigration, concerning our response to people we deem different than us. Those fellows Americans who may not fit our narrow definition of the term.
Ironically, the era of the Civil War and the decades that followed, the era that saw so many people of different nationalities and cultures moving to our country was also the era we missions scholars like to call The Great Century. It was regarded as the height of the modern missions movements. Protestant Americans had taken hold of the Great Commission. They were bravely taking the gospel to the pagan nations of the world. No place was out of reach.
And yet, we didn’t like the idea of black people voting. Dubious scientific theory claimed Anglos were somehow more evolved, more advanced, than everyone else. The same went for all these immigrants lining up at the gates. Popular writing referred to immigration as a flood washing over the country or as an invading army, neither good things. The superiority was explicit, Anglo heritage was worn as a badge of honor, and being “American” meant looking and acting, as much as possible, just like us. The “good immigrant,” the one we would tolerate, was the one who would stop wearing his or her costumes (yes, literature called their clothes costumes) and would do their best to lose any hint of accent. The goal of this good immigrant was to imitate Anglo culture as much as possible, to hide their real identity. After all, that was what made you a good American. That was what made America great.
Then came Saturday…
Saturday morning I was neck deep in immigrant research when I heard the news coming from Charlottesville. I heard reports of torches, heard of people chanting that they were going to take their country back.
Back from who?
From liberals? Whatever. We all know what they meant. These angry-faced white boys look around at a country where American does not mean white, and they hate it. It was called a “Unite the Right” rally, a euphemism for sure. It never ceases to amaze me how we use nice words to conceal our evil intentions. Like “reproductive rights” or “right to die.” Truth is, this movement of white supremacists does not want to unite. Their sole intention is to divide, to tear apart the fragile patchwork quilt that is America.
America was never a white nation, and it certainly isn’t now. America is a grand mosaic of faces that hail from all over the world. Our roots dig into the soil of every continent. Today’s immigration seems to have brought white nationalists out of the woodwork. There is nothing new about this, as our black brothers and sisters can readily tell you. A century ago, our newspapers were clamoring about the wave of immigration and its destruction of the “American” way of life. Back then, angry men and women shouted about their supposed loss of cultural purity.
Saturday morning, I mourned. Here we are, a hundred years down the road, and the newspapers say the same thing.
I cannot get Black’s words out of my head. He was speaking about immigration then, but the words are as true today. We break our neck trying to get to the nations, as long as they stay out of our neighborhood.
In the days and weeks following the hate that manifest in Charlottesville, the church needs to be clear. The gospel is clear, all have sinned. That means you and me. No one has a higher footing under the cross. And it is equally clear that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. That doesn’t come with a exception for certain colors of skin, political ideologies, or visa restrictions. Thank God He is pleased to save us all, and that He desires all men and women to be a part of the family of God. God’s family is multicolored.
Being a Christian and being an American are not the same thing, thank God. I do not want to conflate the two. But if nothing else, the church has a responsibility to love and care for one another. When some among us are hurting, we must love our brethren.
Today, we have fellow brothers and sisters who are hurting, disheartened, scared even. Do not forget church, that we are not all the same color, even here in America. The violence over the weekend means something very different to the refugee and immigrant Christians that now call this country home. Many of them are here because they were fleeing persecution because of the gospel, only to land in a country where their presence is openly hated. Saturday they watched an angry mob with torches vowing to “take their country back.” These immigrant and refugee churches are no less our brothers and sisters. They need our open support, and if it comes to it, protection.
And for our countless black brothers and sisters, this incident means yet a totally different thing. They did not land in the middle of this. This has been their history, their life story. Are we willing to stand by them? Now is not the time for political banter, now is the time for bearing one another’s burdens.
Let’s get introspective church. Let’s ask ourselves the hard questions. Do we love across the aisles the way we should, or do we cherish some cultural ideal of America more than God’s multicolored family?
I end with this question asked a century ago, to Christians sitting in American pews. It is about immigrants, but I believe its implications reach further, to anyone who may not fit your ideal. I think it is worth asking again:
Honestly, what is your attitude toward the ordinary immigrant? Do you want him and his family, if he has one, in your church? Do you not prefer to have him in a mission by himself? Would you not rather work for him by proxy than with him in person? Do you not pull away from him as far as possible if he takes a seat next to you in the car? Actual contact is apt to mean contamination, germs, physical ills. He is ignorant and uncultured. You desire his conversion—in the mission. You wish him well—at a convenient distance. You would much more quickly help send a missionary to the Chinese in China than be a missionary to a Chinaman in America, would you not? Think it over, Christian, and determine your personal relation to the immigrant. Is he a brother man, or a necessary evil? Will you establish a friendly relation with him, or hold aloof from him? Does your attitude need to be changed? [Grose, Alien or Immigrant?]