I live in Houston. Many of my friends and neighbors are refugees, immigrants and now Texans. They, like me, were not born here. Along with my church, I have worked with Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston’s Refugee Services to help families adjust to life in our city.
Texas, and Houston in particular, has a large refugee population. These new neighbors enrich our communities and our lives.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that Texas will bar refugees in 2020. Catholic bishops in Texas condemned Abbott’s decision, calling it “misguided.”
The joint statement by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops says the policy “denies people who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution, from being able to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the general common good of all Texans.”
They continue, “As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger.”
As a Christian and as a Texan, I join with the bishops in opposing this decision to close our state’s doors to refugees. While we must address the on-going border crisis, rejecting refugees is a separate matter.
The refugees we welcome into our country have clear and approved asylum claims. Texas is refusing to welcome people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes by war, famine, religious and cultural persecution and who have passed through the extensive process of becoming a refugee in our country.
“If the sacred stories of the Bible are clear about anything, they are clear about how we must treat the stranger, the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant.”
The Pew Research Center reports that since 2002 Texas has accepted more than 88,000 refugees, more than any state but California. Houston alone has resettled more refugees than many other states. Abbott wants to use this as a reason to keep new refugees out, but I see it as a reason to welcome even more in. We know how to help people as they adjust to life here.
Abbott and others would have us believe that refugees and immigrants are a threat; that we should fear these new neighbors. This is not supported by any facts.
In their own letter, a group of Texas lawmakers wrote: “This issue is both a moral and an economic one. We have an ethical obligation to help those who are fleeing violence and oppression…. Additionally, refugees make a significant economic contribution to Texas and the U.S. They possess an entrepreneurial spirit: 13 percent of refugees were entrepreneurs in 2015, compared to 9 percent of the U.S.-born population. That same year, refugees in Texas spent $4.6 billion and paid $1.6 billion in taxes.”
Economic arguments aside, the Bible is not silent about how God’s people should respond to refugees and immigrants. The Hebrew word ger – translated into English as foreigner, sojourner, stranger, or immigrant – appears 92 times just in the Old Testament, almost always in the context of God commanding the people to love and welcome those who came as foreigners into their land.
Consider Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Or Deuteronomy 10:19: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Our sacred stories are the stories of displaced people leaving what was familiar by choice or force, relying on the hospitality of a new land and an unknown people: Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Esau, Joseph, Moses and the Hebrew people, Naomi and Ruth, David, Elijah, all of Israel, Nehemiah, Ezra, Esther and Mordecai, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, members of the early church, Philip and Peter and John.
Asked in Matthew 25 who will inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus offers these criteria: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in.”
Jesus was a refugee with his mother and father in Egypt. Imagine if Jesus were born now and fled into our country; imagine if Mary and Joseph were arrested and infant Jesus were thrown into a cell with other children separated from their families. Imagine if they were finally granted refugee status but no state would welcome them.
“As a Christian and as a Texan, I join with the bishops in opposing this decision to close our state’s doors to refugees. While we must address the on-going border crisis, rejecting refugees is a separate matter.”
The biblical story of Jesus and the disciples feeding more than 5,000 hungry people begins with the disciples, Jesus’ closest followers, suggesting that the people be sent away. The people are hungry. Many of them are poor. Some of them are sick. They have gathered to hear Jesus teach, but now the hour is late and they need food. “Send them away,” the disciples say. Jesus feeds them. (Mark 6:36).
Jesus not only welcomes the people and feeds them; he invites the disciples into full participation: Jesus has the disciples find what food is available, welcome the people and have them sit down, Jesus gives the disciples the food to distribute, and has them pick up what is left over afterward (6:38-43). They live into the solution they did not consider, the answer they thought impossible.
It wasn’t just the disciples who wanted to send away those the culture named as “other.” The religious leaders were often upset with the company Jesus kept. Consider Luke 15: “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ They are not worth your time, Jesus, they should not be treated as equals. They are not people you should sit down and eat with. These sinners and tax-collectors – they are not like us; they’re not worth your attention. Send them away.
When the disciples want to send the people away, Jesus welcomes them. When the religious leaders want to exclude the very people Jesus welcomes, Jesus tells them they are wrong.
Gov. Abbott is wrong. His action and his rhetoric will feed the alarming rise in xenophobia. People of color, regardless of where they were born, already have words of hate and exclusion hurled at them in grocery stores and on playgrounds.
If the sacred stories of the Bible are clear about anything, they are clear about how we must treat the stranger, the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant. The stories of the Bible exhort us to welcome, they inspire us to hospitality, they compel us to care.
At the very least we must refuse to shut our eyes, refuse to ignore, refuse to turn away. We can shout our words of welcome to counteract words of “go home” and exclusion. We can make it clear that this is our shared home; we can make clear our welcome. We can work for justice for every person.
Editor’s note: On Jan. 15 a federal judge temporarily blocked the Trump administration policy that Gov. Abbott used to refuse refugees from resettling in Texas.