The Celebration of Immigration

Pastor Jeff VanGoethem

We live in an age of immigration and our country is a country of immigrants. And this subject is certainly in the news today isn’t it?  Living in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex means it is also part of our daily lives.  While many are complaining about immigration today, I want to explore why we Christians should be celebrating it.   Those who take a biblical view of life cannot look at the phenomenon of immigration in the same resentful way as many of our fellow citizens.

“And he (God) made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.”  Acts 17:26-27.

Let’s take a look at these two verses, taken from Paul’s address in Athens to the crowd gathered on the Areopagus (a raised platform where scholars and philosophers gathered to discuss issues).  What do these verses teach?

1.God is the God of all people.  The text states that God made from one man (literally one bloodline) every nation of humanity.  All human beings are the same in this sense – they come from the same family.   We see a lot of tribalism in the world today, based on race, nationality, culture, language and so forth. This is all sinful.  The Bible expects and anticipates that groupings of people will differ from one another according to their language and culture, but it rejects the idea that there should be discord over this. Tribalism is not only sinful but like all sin is based on bad theology. No matter what our cultural and other differences, we have far more in common as human beings than we have differences. We came from the same ancestor, we live under the same God, we suffer from the same fallen condition, we have the same need of a Savior, and we face the same destiny, to die and face God’s judgment. In so many ways we are all the same.  This was what Paul was pointing out to the people of his day.  This is sound theology.

2.God directs the people movements of the world. He determines their seasons and their dwelling places. Human beings today are moving around, as they always have!  Although they are making free and independent choices in doing so, the Bible is teaching here that God’s hand is at work in this. And why is God moving people around?  So in their groping they might find Him.  God has a gospel purpose behind His sovereign direction of the people movements of the world.  What an exciting thought!

It is not too surprising that God in His majestic and incomprehensible plan has always sent many people to America.  God has manifestly blessed this land with resources and an expansive frontier.  It has also been a great gospel preaching land since its inception.  I am convinced that God sends many to America so that they might hear the gospel.  I think of my own ancestors, relatively recent immigrants to the U.S.  They came here for economic reasons but God had spiritual reasons.  Some of them found Christ as Savior and so did I!

Remember when you think about immigration think biblically – God is behind the people movements of the world and He has a gospel purpose in it.   We have to have a clear view of the teaching of Acts 17:26-27 as we think about the immigration that everyone is discussing today.

We are all well aware of the controversy over immigration in the U.S., particularly as it relates to illegal immigration.  I cannot speak too loudly here because some of my ancestors, from what I have been led to understand, came here “without papers.”  Remarkably in the policy of the times, they were interviewed and let in.  People have been desperate to come to this great country over a long period of time.  It is a dream for many to come to a land of freedom.  I certainly acknowledge the controversy and the legitimate concerns over illegal immigration.   All I am saying here is that we should take care to develop our theology of immigration from the Bible, not Fox News.

The concerns about immigration seem to be the following:

  1. Economics. I saw a statistic recently that said it costs the State of Texas nearly $700 million to provide services to illegal immigrants every year.  Most of them are unable to get on Medicaid and Medicare and other safety net programs but still they access medical facilities, schools and so forth.  This costs money.  I really do not know how many undocumented immigrants are paying taxes as they work and live here.  I guess many of them live in kind of an “underground” economy, something I do not know much about.  Certainly everyone living and working here should be paying taxes like the rest of us. We can all agree that that is just common sense and fairness.  When people access services they should pay for them.  So this is a concern.
  2. Laws. We want to be a nation of laws.  If you have a breakdown in the respect for law, you are going to have more and more lawlessness and more and more trouble in society. I think it is right to uphold the principle that all immigration should be legal and through proper channels.  I am sure that most illegal immigrants do not have malicious intentions when they come here, but still, illegal immigration is inherently wrong and destructive. When laws are set aside and not enforced, society degenerates.  The rule of law has been critical in America’s long history of stability.

I remember being in New York City 25 years ago just before the administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.  It was terrible.  There were people living on the street.  Crime and vice was everywhere.  You felt like you were risking your life to walk down the streets, even in Manhattan, the best part of the city.  Giuliani came in and adopted a strategy of enforcing ALL the laws, even the small ones, like jay walking and minor vandalism like graffiti. Over time this lead to a cultural change in the city.  There was less and less tolerance for crime and more and more respect and enforcement of the laws.   Everyone’s expectations were raised and a cultural shift occurred.  Consequently today, it is a different city.  Manhattan is safe and welcoming.  All of us should have concern about any fundamental breakdown of law enforcement.  We should eschew all lawlessness. Immigration needs to be legal and lawful.

  1. Security. In this age of terrorism and drug cartels, immigrants need to be screened.  It goes without saying that we do not want terrorists, drug traders, and other criminals coming into the country and creating danger for others.
  2. Assimilation. Are the people coming to America willing to become Americans?  Are they willing to embrace our heritage of religious freedom and democracy?  This is a value judgment but it seems to me that most of them do this.  As one generation passes to another, immigrants should have the goal of fully embracing the positive aspects of our heritage and culture.

These are the concerns that go along with immigration, for any country. They are legitimate public policy questions and hopefully our political process will work out proper solutions to these concerns.

But this is not the limit of our concern as believers. Those of us who take a biblical view of life must take into account Acts 17:26-27 and also see this thing through gospel eyes.  The wonderful news is that God is sending people to our country today as He has in the past.  And many of them are groping to find the one true God and salvation through His Son, the Lord Jesus.  It is our privilege to work with God by seeking them out and proclaiming the gospel to them.

Even the Israelites of the Old Testament days received this commission:  “Likewise when a foreigner who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your (God’s) name sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you . . .” (1Kings 8:41-43).

God brings the foreigner near to His people so that he might come to know God!  What a wonderful opportunity immigration is for the church.

It may be helpful to understand a little of the history of immigration in our country in recent years.  A big change occurred in 1965 when immigration laws were greatly liberalized.  Before then, certain countries (mostly European) were favored and strict quotas were enforced on other nations. This was changed (quotas were abolished) which led to an explosion in more recent decades of immigrants from all over the globe.  Isn’t it remarkable that people from EVERYWHERE want to come to America?  This speaks of the heritage of liberty and the presence of opportunity which we enjoy in America (and often take for granted).  Other people can see it.  They want it too. It is a mighty blessing from God.

Also, in 1980 there was a Refugee Act.  This law gives special permission for many to come to America who are experiencing persecution in other lands.  Many Christians have taken advantage of this, for which we thank God.  Our country has the privilege of being a landing place for the unjustifiably hated and harassed.  Finally in 1990 immigration law set the total number of legal immigrants at 700,000 per year.  With refugees and other categories over the last many years, about one million legal immigrants have entered the U.S. each year.  Of course many others have come illegally, which of course is a problem.  The bottom line is that today in America there are about 40 million first generation immigrants living among us (about 10% or so of the total U.S. population).  We should ask ourselves, “What is God doing?”  And “What does God want me to do about this?”  Rather than resentfully fight against it, we should view it as a glorious opportunity.

For example, do you know how many U.S. foreign missionaries are serving around the globe right now?  Approximately 40/50 thousand.  But do you know how many foreign students are studying in the U.S. right now?  Six hundred thousand.  These are “temporary immigrants” who are here for a period of study and most eventually return to their homelands.  If just 10% of them were converted and sent back to their countries as vibrant Christians, it would be more than double the number of American missionaries overseas.  Ministry to foreign students can be one of the most fruitful of all ministries.

There are great reasons why we should celebrate immigration.  God is moving people around, praise His name, and they want to come here!  This is a great gospel preaching country with a vibrant church in nearly every city. God has a gospel purpose in the moving around of people.  He means for many of them to find Him. We should look for ways to love and serve immigrants.  How can we help them, serve them, love them, befriend them, win them?  God has given His church in America a great privilege of being a friend to the foreigner who has come from a far country.  This is the gospel view of immigration.

People want to come to this great country, as our own ancestors did.  This is not too surprising. There is freedom here.  There is opportunity here.  This is America’s heritage.  As believers we want to also continue our heritage as a great gospel preaching nation.  So let’s join in the celebration of immigration!  It is a blessed aspect of the heritage of our land and a blessed opportunity for Christians and the church.

Are we taking advantage of it?