Foreigners on a pilgrimage

Mass migration is a concern for many countries today: it is part of both the history and the present of Anabaptist-Mennonites. We have been both those who are migrating and those who are welcoming neighbours to a new home. At Justice on the Journey: Migration and the Anabaptist Mennonite Story in San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica, 6 April 2019, presenters from around the world gave testimonies of migration.

The story of the United States of America is a history of immigration. Of people seeking a better life. Of people seeking religious freedom.

For many long-settled Mennonites like me, the immigration part of our history is removed from our everyday life and experiences. For other Mennonites, the history of fleeing countries like Myanmar and finding a new home in a place like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is more recent.

In the past few years, the topic of immigration has been a politically sensitive one in my country, even among fellow believers.

It’s a muddy topic with no clear political answers, but long-standing biblical answers ever since the Law of Moses directed the people to love the foreigner with the reminder that they were once slaves in Egypt (Leviticus 19:33–34).

American perspectives

As a Spanish major in college, I took classes on Spanish and Latin American history and culture. My favorite professor was an amazing woman from Panamá who taught me so much about Latin American perspectives, especially in relation to the USA.

It was from her I learned it’s better to call myself estadounidense instead of americana because technically, everyone in North, Central, and South America is “American” and for the USA to claim sole title to the word is offensive.

From her, I learned the history of migration to the USA in the 20th century is tied more closely to Latin America than to any other continent – and it’s not a pretty one. Because of that, I want to apologize on behalf of my country. Not just because there’s wall construction underway, but because my country has unnecessarily meddled in the politics of Latin America, not for the benefit of its people, but for its own gain, adding to the cycles of corruption and inequality that contribute to need for families to immigrate north.

Anabaptist actions

When I look specifically at how our Anabaptist-Mennonite family has responded to immigrants in the USA and Canada, I’m encouraged because I see people responding out of love and not fear, which is what our Lord Jesus calls us to do.

If you visit different cities in the USA, you might see a sign on a lawn (see inset). When I first saw it, I thought it was a beautiful and simple way to communicate welcome. I was surprised to learn from the Mennonite World Review that the idea for the sign was born in a Mennonite church in Virginia. They wanted to communicate welcome to their neighbours who spoke Spanish and Arabic.

In my home state of Ohio, I have friends from Rosedale Bible College who have moved into a Muslim immigrant neighbourhood next to a local mosque in order to intentionally love the people there and build relationships with them. This group of young people has integrated into the international community of immigrants by helping look after the children, teach English, give driving lessons, etc.

Two summers ago, when there was a hate protest by Christians at the mosque in their neighbourhood, they stood outside the mosque to promote peace and demonstrate solidarity and love for their Muslim neighbours.

Another Mennonite church in Columbus, Ohio, has gone to great lengths to provide sanctuary for an undocumented immigrant, Edith Espinal, for more than a year. As long as she lives in the church, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will refrain from deporting her because of its policy of avoiding “sensitive locations” like churches. At press time, she continues to wait to be granted asylum.

Kingdom identity

These are just a few short examples of how I’ve personally seen brothers and sisters in faith extend love and hospitality to immigrants and refugees in North America. I know there are many more, but I also know that our heavenly Father sees each action of his children. “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40).

Ultimately, the story of migration one that we all share as brothers and sisters in an eternal kingdom. Our spiritual identity is that of foreigners in a foreign land on a pilgrimage to reach our true home. May we continue to support each other on the journey in faith, hope and love.

—Larissa Swartz is the North America representative for the YABs Committee (Young AnaBaptists). She lives in Ohio where she works with university international students and is a member of London Christian Fellowship. She spoke at Renewal 2027 – Justice on the journey: Migration and the Anabaptist story – in San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica, 6 April 2019. This paper been adapted from her presentation.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2019.