My maternal grandparents were immigrants from Norway. My Grandma Edie would enthrall me with the story of her first sighting of American soil. As a young girl, she peaked through the window of the ship and there stood the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, New York City.
When Grandma Edie and Grandpa John fought around my sister and I, often they would do it in Norwegian so we couldn’t understand what they were saying! My grandmother made fish-balls and lutefisk and lefse. The town they lived in was full of Norwegian immigrants and it’s official motto is still officially, “Little Norway”.
Being surrounded by so many Norwegians brought the inevitable Swedish jokes. I just thought it was like an old high-school rivalry. I didn’t know why Norwegians and Swedes teased each-other, it’s just what we did. In fact, my Grandfather posted a sign at the top of his drive-way that said, “Norwegians Only! No Swedes Allowed!” Little did I know that this rivalry came out of a deep-rooted history. But, it was all good fun for the family in those times.
The last two weeks I’ve thought a lot about my precious grandparents. I was always acutely aware we were a Norwegian-American family. But, there was so much I never knew to ask them. They were immigrants. The family didn’t know english when they came, I know that. But what else? What was it like to be foreigners in a strange land?
The reason I thought of this was because I’ve been surrounded by a whole new set of “foreigners” here in South Africa. My husband and I bought a house and we are doing a few renovations this month before we move in. We’ve had the privilege of hiring a number of men from Malawi to help us with some of the work.
In talking with them, they’ve told us stories of living in a country where they are not always wanted or welcome. Just this morning I dealt with a situation where Victor and Dave (two of these men from Malawi) shared how they felt targeted for bad treatment in our area. I’m a foreigner here too. People often make fun of my accent or make known to me their distaste for America. But I’m not unwanted like them… that is the painful truth.
My home country, the United States, is consumed with this same word, “immigrant”. The headlines are filled with a conversation America is having on the presence of immigrants in her land.
In fact it seems everywhere I looked this week, immigrants or immigration was being talked about.
This is what brings me to my Grandpa John and Grandma Edie and my un-asked questions. What was it like for them to be an “immigrant”? How were they treated? Did people target them for ill-treatment? Did they get accused of stealing jobs? Did people make fun of the way they spoke English? Were they refused service because they couldn’t yet speak english? What was it like to walk their journey and be the outsider?
Each day these past two weeks I would make Victor and Dave (and others) their lunch. Each morning I would bring them tea as they got the day started. I contemplated what they would like for a tea break and lunch. What was my obligation to provide for them? God dropped a thought in my mind the first day, “Remember Lindsey, the majority of the time in scripture, immigrant or foreigner is mentioned with two other groups… orphan and widow.”
This wasn’t a new thought to me. I actually read through the Bible one year and circled the word “immigrant” or “foreigner” every time it was mentioned. I was shocked. God see’s immigrants the same way as widows and orphans. Not as weak, not to be pitied… but they are vulnerable and deserve a special place of honour and care in the Christian community.
So every time I made mid-morning tea and lunches I thought, “What would I make if a widow was eating this? What would I want provided if it was for an orphan?” I let that guide me. I then realised, “What would I make if it was my Grandpa John and Grandma Edie”? This was once them and their parents. They were once the immigrant worker.
I wonder if people gave my great-grandparents the worst mid-morning tea and and the cheapest lunches. I wonder if they even fed them anything at all? I wonder if they paid them a fair wage?
Then I thought of Jesus. Not his heart or his values. I thought of his life. Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus fleeing to the foreign land of Egypt. I wonder if people made fun of the way Joseph and Mary spoke the local language. I wonder what sort of lunches Joseph’s boss made him… or if he even fed him at all?
Foreigners, exiles, aliens, immigrants. Let us not forget that these people’s names are always mentioned in the same breath as orphans and widows in God’s living word. “The alien, the orphan and the widow”… the trinity of the vulnerable.
Let us remember that these precious people are somebodies parents, grandparents and great-grandparents… they were once mine. Let us not forget they have other names: Dave, Victor, Grandpa John, Grandma Edie, Joseph, Mary… Jesus.
When you make lunch, mention their status, read headlines about them or have to summon the patience to truly listen as they stumble along in broken English… is your heart shaped by God’s heart for these precious people? Would you speak of an orphan and widow in the same way as the immigrant? Would you post Facebook memes about orphans and widows the same as we do of immigrants? Would you post a sign in your restaurant that said, “Orphan who doesn’t speak English? No Service!”
Immigrants, orphans and widows… God’s precious people. Full of dignity and value even if it’s not always recognized by those who profess the name of our own Egyptian-immigrant saviour, Jesus Christ.