Sunday, April 27, 2014

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor...

"...your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Emma Lazarus as carved on the Statue of Liberty.

...but we'd prefer they be white and already speak English. You understand. Thanks.

It comes as somewhat of a surprise just how racially diverse the rural Midwest is becoming with a rapid influx of Mexican immigrants and Asian refugees. I would assume that in 2015, this fact would come with a sense of pride for our rural churches, perhaps even a sense of adventure for the rare opportunity of real mission work in our own backyard. An in some cases, it has. But in many other cases, I have been woefully mistaken. It seems that above all we're offended, as though our territory is being unjustly usurped by those who, instead of trying to be like us, simply want a better life for themselves and their families just the way they are.
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” (Matthew 12:36)
But how can we, the proprietors of the Great American Spirit that is etched into the metal of our very own Statue of Liberty, begrudge the transformation of our American culture when we were the ones who started it down its transient path in the first place? The only difference is that the people's whose culture has now become a novelty attraction for tourists were at the time in far greater fear of losing their lives than their language. Indeed, as we reflect upon our roots, on our grandparents who came to this great country on dirty, crowded boats banking on the same prosperity and freedom as our Mexican and Burmese cousins, the most patriotic thing that we as Americans can do is sit back and watch the foods in our grocery store aisles change, try some enchiladas for supper, and smile as we press 1 for English.

I digress. If someone wants to make the argument that all immigrants should be assimilated into our contemporary American culture without a trace, fine. There might be some merit. The point of this article is to not let those ideals (misguided or not) interfere the work of the church. If a place of business wants to sacrifice serving our new demographic in favor of mandating a strict English-only policy, it's their choice (albeit not a wise one in terms of revenue). The church, however, is not a business. There are places where the use of the English language ought to be enforced: namely school. The church is also not a school. The church is called to proclaim Christ is Lord to ALL people, even if we have to change the way we teach that belief, and what language we teach it in (1 Corinthians 2:2). WE DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGE THAT BELIEF WITH THE TIDES OF THE CULTURE.

Sharing the love of Christ through pure doctrine does not mean keeping people who are different than we are out by making them feel unwelcome or by shaming them into learning English before they can hear the Gospel (James 2:1-7). It does mean choosing TRUTH over PRIDE and making an effort to meet people outside our doors—whomever they are, wherever they are—regardless of what language they speak, where they came from, what color their skin is, what government checks they receive, or what they had for supper the night before (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) because regardless of all of that, CHRIST DIED FOR THEM TOO (Galatians 3:23-29). Period.

Sharing that reality through Word and Sacrament is the church's primary function, followed closely by ensuring our members have enough food to eat and are warm enough in the winter to survive (James 2:14-17), because we serve a god greater than our country, greater than our ideals, and greater than our customs. We serve God alone on His terms, not on ours (Matthew 6:24). So put down that man-made flag and replace it with the Cross of Christ, which has no country.
"But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." (Philippians 3:20)
How? By deliberately exercising the fact that the Bible was not written in English, that's how. I realize that churches are just trying to stay open these days in today's do-what-you-feel-unless-you-feel-like-disagreeing-with-my-lifestyle-then-you're-a-bigot climate, using all their strength to keep their doctrine pure while not being charged with a hate crime. Oh, how Satan loves to distract us while he steals souls from our own backyard! REMEMBER: real salvation is at stake here (Mark 16:16; Luke 13:3; John 6:54, 14:6; Hebrews 4:2). The survival of the American culture the Baby Boomers are used to SIMPLY DOES NOT MATTER in light of that fact (James 4:4). Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF regardless of what language they speak: that's an order, not a suggestion, Jesus says! (Mark 12:31). 

Not all churches can do all things, nor can we neglect our current flock for the sake of taking on another. That wouldn't make sense. I don't intend to learn Spanish in order to be a good Christian, either. But here are some things we can do to welcome our ethnic brothers and sisters into Christ's church.
  1. Don't expect your pastors to take the lead on this, all ye Boards of Evangelism (1 & 2 Timothy).
  2. Learn how to say, “Welcome,” in Spanish or whatever language is used in your area.
  3. Learn about the situation the immigrants and refugees are coming from (Life on the Thai-Burma Border and Life for the Mexican Suburban Poor). Would you wait until you were fluent in English (one of the most difficult languages for non-native speakers to learn: See "Learning English") before you got your family the heck out of there? I sure hope not.
  4. Make it a priority to add someone to the church staff who is at least partially fluent in Spanish or in another language common to your area. Or better yet, take someone who is already on staff (and who is willing and has the time to learn a new language) and pay for him or her to take a course at your local college or online.
  5. Make a point to form a presence in your local sub-culture. Elders, this means you. Go and visit, let the community know who you are (and mostly who Christ is).
  6. Start a free English as a Second Language (ESL) course at the church. No, you don't have to speak another language in order to do this. You just have to be willing to put in the work, and it is a lot of work, but it's also kindest service we can offer our refugee brothers and sisters.
  7. Very few churches can offer a whole service in another language. So, print bulletins or newsletters in the prominent languages in your area (Google Translate is an excellent free resource) complete with sermon notes and Sunday school/Bible study information.
  8. Put some Spanish or another language on that new investment of a light-up sign out front, or on your tried and true letter-by-letter signs.
  9. For the love of God, literally, put up signs that enable our brothers and sisters to find the bathroom once they are inside our walls. For crying out loud, I have to suggest this? Oy.
  10. Just deal with the awkwardness of not knowing what the other person is saying, and them not knowing what you're saying and brave an old fashioned "Hi." A smile goes a long way in any language.
Will Christ's churches here on earth accept the fact that for the first time in our privileged American lives being a Christian actually entails us doing something we'd prefer not to do? Will we do as the Lord has called us to do and “GO therefore and MAKE disciples of all nations?” (Matthew 19:28a) Or will we be left to answer the question posed to us on Judgment Day, “Why didn't you do unto the least of these my brothers?” (Matthew 25:40) by stuttering, “Well, ah, you see Lord, they didn't speak English, and well, Lord, they owed us at least that...” I don't have to tell you where that belief lands us. Christ Himself has already made it abundantly clear, saying something about a millstone and drowning being preferable to what awaits us should we continue to choose the salvation of our culture over the salvation of our neighbor: Matthew 18:6; Luke 17:2; Mark 9:42. (See also Matthew 19:13; Luke 18:16; Mark 10:14).

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