I am a first-generation American. My dad, Johannes Wytsma, was born in Holland during World War II and later immigrated to the United States. It took most of my life, but he eventually shared the stories of that era with me. He told me how my grandfather, in order to avoid Nazi capture, had to dress up as a woman throughout 1944 and ride a bike over 20 miles to get food for his family and pregnant wife. He told of how they survived by eating tulip bulbs and potato skins discarded by German soldiers.
Even if our history as immigrants stretches back farther, nearly all of us come from families who were, at some point, strangers in a strange land. And in a broader sense, all Christians are travelers and exiles, no matter which country claims their earthly citizenship, because we recognize that earth is not our eternal home. We, like the Israelites, are a people of exile. I Peter 2:11 reminds us, "Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul."
The themes of sojourning and pilgrimage are deeply embedded in Christian theology and spirituality. It is also why empathy and the discipline of remembrance are so important in scripture. No other time of year on the Christian calendar carves out remembrance better than Lent. While the intention of these 40 days of Lent is to remember Christ's death, the tradition of remembrance begins on the Old Testament.
More than a half dozen times in Deuteronomy, God calls the Israelites to remember they were slaves once too. Remembering helps us empathize. While the word "sympathy" is more concerned with sharing someone's suffering, the word "empathy" connotes a strong identification with another's suffering. Empathy comes from the Greek en (in) and pathos (suffering) and literally means to enter into the pain and experience of the other.
That's one reason my friend Jenny's work is so vital. Jenny Yang is the Director of Advocacy and Policy for the Refugee and Immigration Program at World Relief. She travels around the country, engaging churches and other groups to study what Scripture says about empathy and solidarity for the vulnerable in our society. She reminds Christians that their own stories are often not so different from the immigrant stories they may encounter in their communities.
"Immigrants are all around us," says Jenny, "whether a recently resettled refugee who left home due to persecution, an undocumented immigrant who cuts your lawn, or an immigrant family in your neighborhood who's been living in the United States for many years."
She helps connect people to the biblical narrative which itself is filled with immigrants -- the stories of Abraham, Rebekah, Joseph, Ruth, Daniel, and even Jesus, who fled to Egypt as a child and was later a returning refugee.
When I asked Jenny why empathy is so essential, she said, "Immigrants often leave everything behind, and have little in terms of resources or friends in their new homes. Justice is not only about seeking to correct root causes of injustice; it's also about building just relationships with those in your community who can often be marginalized and forgotten. This can start with a simple conversation with someone who is foreign born as you get to know their story. Empathy is a necessary part of our Christian faith because in showing empathy, we recognize that the grace we receive from God is unmerited and unconditional -- and therefore we should love unconditionally those around us, particularly the vulnerable. Scripture is clear about God's affinity for the vulnerable -- as in Zechariah 7:10, which says, "Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other" -- and I'm hopeful that we can learn to practice this, for in the end, I believe the immigrant, the refugee, can be any of us.
Immigration is a hot-button issue in America today that often evokes powerful negative emotions rather than the attitude Scripture teaches of loving or empathizing with the alien or foreigner. One of the statistics that drives home both the messiness as well as the human side surrounding the realities of immigration is that there are currently more than 5,000 children in the foster care system in the United States whose parents have been deported or are being detained. Each of those children had one or two parents -- until the day they became virtual orphans. Regardless of my opinions about the specific policies and life choices that result in those separations, my empathy now extends to imagine a child who may never be reunited with his or her parents.
Can you imagine yourself in a foster home, separated from your parents, and having no certainty of seeing them again? I believe God wants our hearts to be affected by the same things that affect His. Empathy has a central role to play in helping us to be in concert with God's concerns: regardless of our public, political stance on a particular justice issue (of which immigration is only a single example), our personal attitude toward the people involved must be characterized by godly love and grace.
Sometimes I find myself becoming more comfortable with categories or labels than with the people behind them. That's when I need to remember. That's when I need empathy to move me past the labels and connect me again with the human story and with God's call to love and stand with the vulnerable.