By Greg Smith
Out of the blue I received a call from a true neighbor.
“I know that immigrants are losing their jobs from the coronavirus [COVID-19] and many won’t be receiving government help.” Sadly, I had to agree.
“So I want to help. I want to send a contribution to your ministry so you can help them with food or other things they can’t pay for right now.”
Soon afterwards, other neighbors began making the same call.
If Scripture is the foundation of our faith, then it is the foundation for our understanding of immigrants. Scripture, not culture or politics or the media or personal opinion, is the place where the follower of Jesus begins framing a moral or ethical approach to immigration.
But before asking, “What does the Bible say about immigrants or immigration?” we have to answer a more fundamental question: “What does the Bible say about us who claim to follow Jesus?”
In their small book, Responding to Refugees: Christian Reflections on a Global Crisis, authors Christine Pohl and Ben Donley point toward Luke’s “Parable of the Good Samaritan” to answer our question.
In the parable, Jesus does not bite on the scribe’s self-justifying question, “Who is my neighbor?,” but rather he drills down on the real issue at hand.
As Pohl and Donley put it, “The parable teaches that for those who are able to help, the response is not determined by careful definitions of neighbor; rather, the key question for us is whether or not we are acting as neighbors to persons in need.”
That is, the question is not, “Is that person my neighbor?” but rather “Am I the neighbor Jesus demands of me for that person?”
Bill Botts and his ESL-teacher wife, Sue, are neighbors. Bill, a retired Fredericksburg, Virginia legal aid attorney of 40 years and former director of Rapaphannock Legal Services (RLS) (today called LAW or Legal Aid Works), volunteers as an immigration attorney at LUCHA Ministries, Inc., which is a U.S. Department of Justice recognized organization providing low-cost immigration legal services.
Faithful members of Fredericksburg United Methodist Church, Bill and Sue travel annually on mission trips to Mexico and Central America. They also volunteered with their local Catholic Charities office to help immigrants bring family members from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to the U.S. through the Obama-era Central American Minors (CAM) program.
As a legal aid director, Bill stopped accepting federal funding twenty years ago and looked for private and faith-based funding so his program could represent undocumented immigrants. “I’ve always viewed my legal aid work as performing social justice in a way that accepted the poor as my neighbors.”
In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just over the US-Mexico border, pastor Lorenzo Ortiz and his church are neighbors to Central American asylum seekers at the southern border. Ortiz and his congregation are a vital link in a network of churches and their leaders serving people fleeing violence in an effort to find a life free of fear and want.
Ortiz operates three immigrant shelters housing around 200 immigrants. “We’re feeding them three meals a day, plus providing legal information—how to fill out the form for asylum. It’s a struggle. Some of the older ones don’t know how to read or write.”
Then there’s the Welcome House Community Network in North Carolina and Tennessee which offers yet another example of being neighbor. The network’s seven houses offer refugees and other immigrants temporary residence for up to six weeks.
Envisioned by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Kim and Marc Wyatt, the Welcome House network partners with CBF North Carolina, local congregations—CBF and non-CBF alike—various refugee agencies, and Tennessee CBF.
“Community” is central to the Welcome House idea, with residents from different parts of the world being neighbors to each other while receiving warmth and love from the Wyatts and their treasured partners.
Their aim, as Kim and Marc express it, is simple: To share the love of God in Christ Jesus through the ministries of hospitality and friendship. In other words, to be neighbors.
“Is the immigrant working in a restaurant, or building a new home, or cleaning houses, or teaching children, or nursing and treating the sick, or researching vaccines or simply walking down the street my neighbor?” According to Jesus, not only is this a bad question, it’s the wrong question.
Instead of asking who our neighbors are, as followers of Jesus—himself once a Refugee—our task is to ask, “Am I the neighbor Jesus is calling me to be for the immigrant?”
Because that’s the question Jesus is asking you and asking me.
Greg Smith is a CBF field personnel serving alongside his wife, Sue, in Fredericksburg, Va. Learn more about and support their work at www.cbf.net/smith.