The missionary visits were my favorite as a child. They’d set up their table in the foyer, covered with material of bold and bright prints. Photos would be shared, often in a slide show, delayed by the inevitable confusion about which way the slides should go and how to focus the colorful, foreign images. I found other cultures compelling, intriguing. I always have.
When I went to Nepal on a mission trip at seventeen, I saw what it was to live in poverty and need and corruption and potential of danger. But I also saw Christians who believed in actual miracles, who walked for miles to get to church, where they sat on the ground and stayed in fervent prayer and joyful praise for the entire day. In their depravity, they revealed my own depravity. Despite their economic poverty, they had a rich, robust faith. They had an unyielding joy.
I thought I’d live in a foreign country, at least for a time. I thought I’d be a missionary, at least for a time. I am baffled by my economic wealth and white suburban location.
When we made the choice to move back to Maine from Seattle to raise our family, one of our concerns was a lack of diversity. We wanted our kids exposed to realities outside of themselves, races of different shades. Maine is one of the whitest state in the nation.
It’s been over thirteen years since I went to Nepal — a day rarely goes by when I don’t think of that place and that trip. It was one of many pivots in my faith journey.
I miss the slide shows. I want to go on mission trips, but not selfishly. So in Topsham, I thought of an organization I had heard of at a Jars of Clay concert a few years previous: The Root Cellar. I asked to volunteer. I asked if my kids could come. And we went.
At first we showed up randomly, often as a family until, mostly to eat with people different from us. Our kids were difficult about it — often annoyed by the long car ride, by the unfamiliar food, unfamiliar languages. I liked it — liked feeling a little uncomfortable and out-of-place in our own home state. (The Root Cellar is in Lewiston, serving the economic poor and the refugees.) I had a strong sense that Jesus would be there, that He is there.
When they started an English Language Learner program, I wanted to be involved. It was a longshot to make it work, but I’m enormously grateful we did. Ryan went to work late — dropping Bronson off at preschool. Oli and I would drive to Lewiston, arriving in time to make copies, set up a class, and let him draw on the whiteboard. He would play in the other room — sometimes with students’ children, sometimes with Brethren volunteers.
At first, I thought I was providing a real service, that I was giving to the refugees. The first semester was a little rough, making up curriculum and trying to bridge cultural and language divides. The second and third semester, I found myself the recipient, not the giver. My students were fluent in at least four languages, and despite their protests, quite good at English. They were from war-torn countries, seeking refuge.
One student was the head nurse at a hospital in Congo before immigrating to the United States. One student was a radiologists at another hospital. One student told me every time I saw him, that he prayed the Lord would bless me.
I’ve always believed that the foreigner must be welcome among us. I really don’t see how you read the Bible and think otherwise.
For me, the immigration ban isn’t an ideological dispute, a theoretical issue. It isn’t even just a theological issue, though I believe it is. I see faces when I hear about this ban. I see children my children played with. I don’t see people who are “mooching” off of us; I see people who have much to offer. I see a richness we can’t have in uniformity. I see God more clearly reflected in our varied experiences and cultures coming together than our division, brought on by fear.
As a country of great wealth and resources and freedom, we can offer refuge to many. I believe we should offer refuge to many. But we should also humble ourselves and recognize that we are not the only ones with something to offer. We are missing out without them. They have much to give. We have much to learn.