Immigration: A Tale of Two Grandfathers

March 23, 2015
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For many of us, the daily struggle of 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States is not a very real wound in our hearts but rather an abstract piece of data in our heads. To paraphrase Joseph Stalin: ‘The distress of one undocumented person is a tragedy. The distress of millions is a statistic.’ Rather than weeping with those who weep, we are content simply to count them.

Photo courtesy of John Lee. "Earl Lee"

Photo courtesy of John Lee. “Earl Lee”

I had as much of a claim to intellectual indifference as anyone. Growing up on a third generation dairy farm in Northern Michigan, immigration was but a cultural echo in my childhood. My maternal grandfather had immigrated on a whim of compassion. His older brother Kees had booked passage on a boat to New York with the goal to establish himself and then send for his wife and young children. On the Saturday morning before his departure, however, the prospect of separation proved too much for his wife. To the sad sound of her weeping, a family meeting was called. By that afternoon, my bachelor grandfather agreed to fill the newly vacated ticket and on Monday morning he was on his way to the United States.

My school community of McBain, MI was filled with such immigrant histories, dutifully trotted out every fall for the annual Dutch Food Festival at my local Christian school. As surely as the maple leaves turned a bright orange over the playground, every autumn cultural memories manifested themselves in almond-flavored culinary creations and the anachronism of wooden shoes clanking on tiled floors.

But I was part of another community as well. I went to school in McBain, but my mailing address was Marion, MI. Descended from a rough logging community built around a lake formed behind a dam of the Middle Branch River, Marion’s residents were nativist. My paternal grandfather was born in the northeastern bedroom of an old white farmhouse 4.5 miles outside of town. The oldest of his five boys, my father, was born in that same bedroom. And 67 years after his birth, my grandfather left this world from the same bedchamber in which he entered it. His was a life of rooted stability.

I took those stories of my two grandfathers with me as after college I boarded a plane to begin work as a missionary in Nicaragua. One a pilgrim; the other a settler. One an immigrant; the other a native-born citizen. One a man who carried his faith through different lands; the other a man rooted in a land from which he drew his faith, life, and livelihood. I had always identified with the latter narrative, but now I began to experience the former. And my life would never be the same.

Within a month of my arrival, I watched the terrorist attacks of 9-11 unfold on a TV screen in Estelí. Beginning to sense what it was like to see events unfolding in your home country from a distance, I felt the unique agony of one’s heart and body not sharing the same geography. As a bachelor myself, I began to appreciate the loneliness my immigrant grandfather must have felt living in a land without the familiar smile of kith or kin. Boarding with a Nicaraguan family, I began to process the difficulty of adjusting to living and working in a new country, language, climate, and culture – with its daily adventure, relinquishment, and humor. I also began to listen. I listened to youth that I worked with in the village of Nagarote. Young men like Winston whose life aspiration, when asked, was to somehow make it through the harsh, nearly impenetrable southern border of Mexico to find work there. Young children like Andrea who waited three years in an agonizing adoption process to begin a new life filled with dreams of opportunities with a family in Alaska.

In the stories, I began to sense the peculiar mixture of desperation and entrepreneurial hope that drove men like my great Uncle Kees to try to leave family and home in search of a better life. I began to see that each person’s story was different, an idiosyncratic combination of push and pull factors, of external structural issues and deeply personal values, of altruistic virtue and selfish vice. I began to see that immigrants were not the noble but passively victimized caricatures put forth by many U.S. progressives, nor the ‘drug runners with calves the size of cantaloupes’ assumed by some on the political right. They were human. Bearing the dignity of God’s image, broken by sin, in need of Christ. Filled with dreams and fears. Like both of my grandfathers. Like me.

After three terms on the mission field, I returned to North America to begin seminary studies. There I began to put some theological muscle on my skeletal reflections. I learned that the Hebrew word, ger, which is translated “foreigner” or “alien” or “immigrant,” appears 92 times in the Old Testament. And there is a thread of God’s loving-kindness connecting each appearance as typified in Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The foreigner living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”

Photo courtesy of John Lee. "Earl with Siblings"

Photo courtesy of John Lee. “Earl with Siblings”

Probing deeper, I discovered that in many ways, the Old Testament is a story of immigrants. From Abraham and Sarah leaving their country and people, to Israel’s formative experience living as (often unwelcome) immigrants for 400 years in Egypt, to the story of Ruth, to Israel’s repeated experience of diaspora – the self-identity of God’s people was captured in David’s prayer of 1 Chronicles 29:15 “We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers.” David’s grandpas, it turns out, had their own stories, too.

Taking that theological understanding, clarified by Jesus’ calls to love our neighbor as ourselves, I moved after graduation to pastor a church in Sioux Center, IA. I knew going in that very much like McBain, MI, it was a community with a strong immigrant echo. In the 2000 US Census, Sioux County had the highest percentage of Dutch Americans of any place in the United States. But to my surprise, there was also a strong new immigrant melody, the music of the mariachi band blending with the pipe organ. A rapidly growing Latino population reached over 13% in the 2010 Census and continues to expand.

So as I began to minister to a historically Dutch congregation, I also begin listening to my Hispanic neighbors. In many ways their stories were similar to my immigrant grandfather and to my own struggles and joys in Nicaragua. But there was one key departure. Although each had their own story, many were part of the same statistic: those 11.7 million residents in the United States who lack proper documentation. Approximately 40% of these individuals overstayed their original visa. The remainder either intentionally crossed the US border illegally (a misdemeanor…legally equivalent to a speeding ticket), or they were brought over by parents. And behind those statistics often lay great personal pain.

My neighbor’s stories are not mine to share, but I discovered a community marked with fear, frustration, and growing hopelessness. I saw families torn apart by deportations. Young people brought here by their parents, who speak Iowan English and listen to Taylor Swift, have no options to rectify their legal situation. I heard from Christian employers who sought to comply with the law and deeply cared for their employees, and yet had to stand by helplessly as hard-working individuals so key to the local economy were picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for false papers. I’ve heard tales of abuse by women whose lack of legal status kept them silent, twice victimized by the threats of deportation by their abusers. I’ve heard of racial profiling and racial insults.

Through it all, I am discovering that there are no easy answers. Much of this issue is structural, intersecting the powerful currents of globalization and the broken realities of our current immigration system and the legislative processes needed to fix it. Adding to the complexity, the Biblical witness noted above does not speak specifically to the socio-economic and political situation faced in North America and we can’t proof-text our way into policy. And the sin in our hearts is an intractable enemy.

Nevertheless, there are things we can do. My church has begun a program of English-as-a-Learned Language (ELL), partnering native English speakers in one-on-one relationships with newcomers. That is a powerful way to serve our immigrant neighbors, but also to transform them from faceless statistics into friends. For the past five years I have also served with a local non-profit known as CASA (Center for Assistance, Service, and Advocacy) that is committed to enabling persons from diverse cultures in Sioux County to flourish.

We have a long way to go as individuals, as a community, and as a nation, yet I am filled with hope. Like my grandfathers, the neighbors I share life with are resilient reflections of the God who made them and who is redeeming this world. They shouldn’t just be numbered on our stat sheets. They should count in our hearts. For they count in God’s.

About the Author
  • John Lee grew up on a third-generation dairy farm in Northern Michigan before attending Calvin University. John then served 2001-04 with Christian Reformed World Missions/World Relief Committee in Nicaragua. He returned for a Master of Divinity seminary degree from Calvin Theological Seminary (2004-08), including graduate work in Israel, where he met his wife, Mary Jo. Bethel Christian Reformed Church is the first North American church they've served. Pastor John just completed nine years on the Dordt University Board of Trustees and currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Christian Reformed Church's Council of Delegates and is active with an immigrant ministry board, CASA.

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  1. Thank you for so beautifully sharing your personal journey and understanding on this issue. I pray that many who read this will deepen their insight into our immigration issues and seek better solutions from our leaders. Thank you Jon Lee!