How welcoming are we? Realities of Christian hospitality and U.S. migration policies

Hospitality, as depicted in shared sacred texts, is referred to in terms of welcoming the stranger. When we welcome others into our homes, at our tables and into our lives, we are practicing the hospitality of Abraham - the hospitality at the core of our traditions that allows the impossible to happen and gives us hope.

Jen Kilps

By Jen Kilps

David was pulled over for a broken taillight. It happened one cool, breezy, crisp April evening in Southern California. A graphic designer with a thriving business, he was on his way home from work to join his wife, two-week-old baby girl and two-year-old son.

David had been living the American dream and had been a responsible citizen. He has, since that night, been locked in a federal detention center for being undocumented. David is terrified. The anguish of separation from his family, and his fear of losing his home and business, are real, as is the threat of deportation from the country in which he has lived since he was a small boy.

David’s story is not unique. It is not even uncommon. According to Detention Watch Network, “The U.S. government detained approximately 380,000 people in immigration custody in 2009 in … about 350 facilities at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion.” Non-citizens, including immigrants who lack certain documents and asylum seekers, are held, often for months or years and with no right to a lawyer, in federal detention centers, county jails and an ever-growing number of for-profit private facilities.

Immigration is a hot topic right now in the United States, particularly in light of the upcoming elections. Within these past few weeks we witnessed the Supreme Court’s ruling on Arizona’s controversial immigration law SB 1070, a law whose principles are being replicated across the country. Although the court’s ruling struck down three provisions of Arizona’s law, it let stand “the notorious ‘show me your papers’ provision, which requires illegal detentions and systematic racial profiling by local police,” as the ACLU puts it.

Now the question that, literally, keeps me awake at night persists: Is this is how we practice hospitality in America? Specifically, is this how we who claim the identity “Christian” welcome our brothers and sisters to share in the bounty and resources our homeland offers? Can our migration policies even begin to stand up to what we purport to understand of the Gospel?

Hospitality, as a specific mandate, is common to Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The three great “religions of the book” share the same archetypal account of hospitality in the story of Abraham at the Oak Trees of Marme. Abraham unwittingly welcomed three angels to his home, offering them nourishment and aid before receiving the miraculous news that Sarah, who had been barren, would bear a son.

Hospitality in this example, and as depicted in other shared sacred texts, is referred to in terms of welcoming the stranger. When we welcome others into our homes, at our tables and into our lives, we are practicing the hospitality of Abraham – the hospitality at the core of our traditions, the hospitality that allows the impossible to happen and gives us hope.

For Christians, hospitality is not optional. It is not something one does when convenient. Like the compassionate Samaritan who gave aid without question, without expectation of recompense, hospitality is a way of living, a way of meeting another’s needs, a way of welcoming people into our lives.

Jesus lived a life of welcome – eating and sharing his life particularly with those in need. He explained quite clearly, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:35-36, 40

Hospitality is a way of life. It is the Way of the Gospels – it is the Way of Christ. Jesus welcomed all to his table and into his life. Like him we are to spend our lives caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, and welcoming those who are strangers.

Held up in light of the hospitality of Christ, David should be at home with his family and at home here in America.

It grieves me to say, in answer to my previous questions that yes, this is how we practice hospitality in America; yes, this is how we share God’s abundance with our brothers and sisters; and no, our policies do not stand up in light of the Gospel.


Dr. Jen Kilps is Ecumenical Relations Coordinator for the CWS Immigration and Refugee Program. She earned her Ph.D. in theology (writing her thesis on the topic of hospitality, especially to refugees) from the Center for the Study of Religion and Politics in St. Andrew’s, Scotland.

David’s name and a few details of his story have been changed to protect his anonymity.

 

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