Wednesday, January 10, 2007

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable to everyone (Titus 3:3-8).

In a recent move I found some documents again that I had packed away: letters from Russia, written in German, a marriage certificate written in German that consisted of a piece of folded stationary, stating that my husband’s grandfather, Paul Schulz, had married Margaretha Schmidt. It was signed by a Reformed Church pastor. The place was in Russia, but I’m not sure where, as the name is the German name for the city.

My husband grew up in a mostly immigrant community in Nebraska. Only sometime after my husband and I married were his home church services conducted in English in this town. Later German services were relegated to Sunday evenings and after awhile ceased to exist. The immigrants were scrupulously honest. Debts had to be paid. Houses and yards were immaculate. Behavior was monitored. Work was obligatory. It was important to be a good citizen. Why? Because immigrants are suspect. They don’t speak English. And if they speak English, it is with an accent. The criminal element comes from the immigrant community, does it not? At least that is the perception.

There was always some element of sadness among the older immigrants. Most never saw their relatives in the “old country” again. A letter from a distant relative was a joyous and sad occasion. So good to hear about life back “home,” but life back home was not very good. There was imminent war or there was abject poverty or there was the realization that you would never see that person again. One letter I was able to decipher was about how hungry everyone was back in Russia. People were eating sugar beets to stay alive. Could Uncle Paul send some money? But not to get any letters was bad, also. Did s/he die? Were they sick? There was a lot of “not knowing” and a hard-to-define loss. Should they grieve or not grieve? Most became hardened to grief. To cry would be to be weak. So the older community of immigrants held in a sort of secret, unspoken grief. Without closure, the absent remain present.

To be an American was important, but would you be allowed to be an American – in full standing? If you tried and the majority culture rejected you, would your own take you back in or would you become one of those marginal people on the edge of both cultures and members of neither? If you were allowed to sink into the culture, would you have to give up your immigrant status? Most of the children of the immigrants made it. The older ones endured the hardships for the sake of their children. This is still happening today.

Is there a place in America for immigrants who don’t speak English very well and who think about home and know they may never see their relatives again? Who is their family? Many, who have no physical family present, seek out a psychological family. They seek out others who speak their language. They often choose to live in neighborhoods that become increasingly ethnic in nature. This has been true for every ethnic group that has come to America. In Lincoln, Nebraska, there are the Russian bottoms (it floods there), in Chicago there is little Italy, in Philadelphia there is Little Poland, and in many East and West Coast cities there is China town. Increasingly, the world is moving to America. Is there a welcoming place for them? Is there a place where they can speak of their losses and gains and be given understanding? Is there a place where they will not be marginal?

Ideally, that welcoming place is the Community of Jesus Christ. Ideally, all who are alienated have a place in God’s community: the orphan, the divorced, the prisoner, the poor, the broken, the alien, the disenfranchised, the unemployed, the widowed, the old, the young and you and me and the foreigner.

Go into all the world might mean, go to a neighborhood near you, meet the world and make friends. I’m thinking, that these new immigrants could use some mentors to help them with their adjustment. They might like to learn English. I have been a foreigner and afraid because I didn’t understand what was going on. Believe me; I appreciated every kindness that was extended to me.

Eugene Patterson’s translation of John 1:14 is: Jesus became a human being and went and lived in the neighborhood. If we are to be Jesus, there are a lot of neighborhoods that haven’t met him yet and they are just down the street from where we live right now.