Reflection: Jesus the Refugee

by | May 6, 2019

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

Matthew 2:14-15a

For some years now, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has asked presbyteries about their work on behalf of refugees in their area.  Since PDA was first established, their charter has included care for refugees, which is logical as migration is a normal response to disasters.

Our neighboring presbytery, Pacific, has developed a good working relationship with PDA in helping people who have fled their home countries.  Pacific has reached out to us as a potential partner in coordinating services primarily to people seeking asylum from the fatal violence they are facing, especially in what is called the “Northern Triangle” nations of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  El Salvador has the highest incidence of murder of any nation in the world.  According to the United Nations, El Salvador had 82.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016.  Honduras was second at 56.5 per 100,000.  As a comparison, the United States rate was 5.35 per 100,000, South Korea was 0.7, and in 2012 (the most recent report) Egypt’s murder rate was 2.5 per 100,000.

Pacific approached us because we are the other presbytery that has been most responsive to the concerns of immigrants in crisis.  Our churches have shown welcome and support to refugees from the Middle East and Central America, not only through our immigrant churches but from majority-culture churches who are following the Bible’s repeated direction to care for orphans, widows, foreigners, and all oppressed people.  One question that I am often asked is for coordination and emotional support for our church leaders, as this work is confusing at best and heartbreaking on a regular basis.  I am especially concerned for our Latino/a pastors, who are on the front lines of caring for families threatened by ever-changing immigration policies.  Our Justice, Peacemaking and Mission Committee has approved applying for a grant to partner with Pacific Presbytery, and to support our own churches as they support asylees. Claremont Presbyterian Church has already generously pledged $2,500 and office support for such a coordinator.  I will update you as we make progress in this area.

I realized as I was speaking about this effort for refugees and asylees that there are several kinds of immigration, and sometimes they are lumped together, and not for the better.  Off-hand, I can think of several categories of migrant who are present in our community:

  1. Of course many of our immigrant neighbors have become legal citizens of the United States, or are permanent residents (ie, they have their “green cards”).  While they enjoy their rights to work and live in the US, they sometimes face racial discrimination, including when crossing the border.
  2. Many of our friends hold visas of some kind, either for work or study.  Some of our pastors, for instance, hold religious work visas.  These are time-bound but can be renewed, and they can apply for green cards and citizenship. 
  3. Others were settled as refugees with the help of our government.  For example, many US allies from conflicts in Southeast Asia and the Middle East have been welcomed with some support and protection from the government, and they are able to obtain green cards and citizenship.
  4. A large number of residents in Southern California are here legally with “Temporary Protected Status,” or TPS.  These people were granted legal status out of generosity on the part of the US and other nations, when their homelands were destroyed by earthquake, hurricane, or civil war.  The largest number of TPS residents come from El Salvador, but include individuals from Haiti, Somalia, and South Sudan.  These individuals could be deported on short notice if their nation’s eligibility expires or is revoked.  A court case has temporarily preserved the status of people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, because the government has recently attempted to terminate their status.
  5. An especially admirable group of residents have received DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, status.  We also call them “Dreamers.”  They are legal residents as long as their DACA status is kept current, which must be renewed every two years.  Though they do not have documents, they did not consciously break the law, since they were not of age when they were brought to the United States.  We have a church leader who recently applied for renewal of her DACA permit, and this week I just learned she received it.  Thanks be to God, not only for her sake and the sake of her family, but for the three churches in our presbytery that she serves!
  6. The current focus in the news is the people fleeing the Northern Triangle.  They are called refugees, or asylum seekers, or asylees.  The thousands of unaccompanied minors who came to the United States a few years ago, and families who have been presenting themselves at the border seeking asylum now, are awaiting hearings in the immigration court.  Due to delays in the court system, it can take years before their case comes up.  The unaccompanied minors were placed with families.  Now there are whole families who must find housing as they await their asylum hearings.  As long as they presented themselves as asylum seekers, they are here legally.
  7. And there are those who are living in the United States without documentation of any kind.  As you have probably heard, most of these undocumented residents did not slip in across the border.  The largest number of undocumented residents are people who have continued to stay in the US after their legal visas expired.

I expect there are many other categories of migrant status, but these are the groups who are well-represented in our community.  One thing I want to point out—ALL of these categories of immigrant except the last group are here legally.

So when Joseph and Mary heard about their government’s threats against their child Jesus, they fled to Egypt and stayed there until it was politically safe to return to their homeland.  Thank God they were given refugee status for those years!

I expect there are many different perspectives on the amount of immigration we are experiencing in the United States.  Our San Gabriel Presbytery has done better than much of the rest of the PC(USA) in welcoming, and benefiting from, our new neighbors from many nations.  As such, we have a special mission in helping our fellow Presbyterians to know that when we choose welcome, we choose new life, new gifts, new energy, and yes, new language, new traditions, and new food.  It isn’t always easy, but it is the way of our world.  From the beginning of human life, there has been migration across oceans and continents.  Let us follow God’s guidance and seek God’s comfort and encouragement as we seek to be faithful and loving, reflecting the compassion and life experience of our savior Jesus Christ.

Trusting in God’s providence in sending us neighbors,