Our Calling of Empathy and Love for Migrant Children

August 2, 2018
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My son had a lot of ear infections. They started when he was only months old, and by the time he had surgery to relieve the problem, we had suffered through twelve or thirteen of them. There were nights when I was so tired from rocking him, holding him, pacing with him that I would lay down on the bed, and he would lay on top of me—crying. It is a helpless feeling to know that your child is suffering and to have no way to relieve his pain. In times likes these, the only thing you can do is bear witness to the pain. To be present to it. To hold him while he cries.

Until this week, I had not considered my ability to simply be present with my crying child as a privilege for which I should be grateful.

Many are trying to draw attention to the human side of our border crisis. There’s a viral video where famous faces read a heart-wrenching testimony of a young mom whose child was taken from her when she came to the U.S. to seek asylum. Every word is awful—unimaginable.

In the video, we learn that the baby got an ear infection after he was taken from his mom. The mother learned this over the phone from a social worker. The child was too young to tell her over the phone because he does not speak yet. It is difficult for me to imagine the horror of praying that someone—anyone—would hold my suffering infant while he cried.

I wonder if the reason I still get emails from angry Christians who believe that these mothers are the problem—that it is neglect and selfishness that has compelled them to bring their children on a long and dangerous journey away from their homes toward an unknown and unsure future—is because we have a failure of imagination. Perhaps we cannot imagine a life that would cause us to make such a choice. Perhaps we cannot relate to the reality of living in the midst of chronic danger. Perhaps we cannot imagine the feeling of watching your child grow up without the promise of meaningful opportunity or even reaching adulthood. Perhaps we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of someone who believes that her life and her child’s life is worth something more—and maybe that’s because we don’t know what it is like to not have the assuredness that there is always more available, ready for the taking.

Perhaps we have believed that “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine”1 looks like a three-stall garage, or a steady paycheck, or a prescription for eardrops and a bottle of children’s Tylenol. It looks like our own abundance, with a property line and some options for a 401k.

To be people who read Scripture, we must be people with enough imagination for suffering. Our faith, our experience of God, depends on our ability to imagine what it felt like to be Hagar—used, cast aside, alone in the wilderness. It depends on our ability to imagine being one of the Hebrew midwives—afraid of the consequences of following their deepest convictions. It depends on our ability to imagine being the Apostle Paul—so doggedly sure of his righteousness and struck blind by a God whose love cannot be contained.

The God we encounter in Scripture hears the cries of mothers wailing for their children but is not moved by the smug self-righteousness of those who claim there is a proper and orderly way to flee for one’s life.

Separated children are being reunited, slowly, with their parents—the court has required it to be so. Some are so traumatized that they do not recognize their own mothers. Some will wait months because nobody thought to keep good enough records, and the numbers got confusing. Some will be sent back, and they will die because the violence they tried to escape did not dissipate while they were gone. Some will never see their parent again and will face an unknown future in a country that is so rapidly devolving into nativism it is unclear whether we intend to allow immigrants to continue to come at all.

Congress is claiming concern over this heartbreaking situation, but their proposed solution betrays their true intentions. They intend to keep families together by locking them up. So while the moms will be able to comfort their crying children, they will do so from inside a jail cell with no sure answer to the child’s questions of when they will be able to leave. Existing human rights protections insist that children should not be incarcerated indefinitely—because it is trauma and because it is wrong—but Congress is now considering changing that.

Meanwhile, immigration policies are shifting so fast, even the experts are not sure how to engage anymore. Now, you can’t get asylum if you’re fleeing domestic violence or gang violence, which characterize the bulk of the claims that come from Central America. Now, you can’t be assured that your citizenship is permanent as the government sets about a process called denaturalization. Now, you can’t be sure that taking your child to the doctor won’t become the reason you’re deported.

I believe that there is a broad failure of imagination in the church today—failure to imagine that it could be us, vulnerable to senseless and ceaseless suffering. Failure to imagine that those who suffer are human, beloved by God, holy. Failure to imagine what St. Teresa meant when she said:

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.2

About the Author
  • Kate Kooyman is a pastor in the Reformed Church in America and works for the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice. She teaches about immigration issues in churches in order to empower Christians to discern their calling to advocate for justice. She also helps to coordinate the "Immigrants are a Blessing, Not a Burden" campaign.

  1. Ephesians 3:20  

  2. https://www.catholicity.com/prayer/prayer-of-saint-teresa-of-avila.html  

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