Commentary: Crossing borders

Commentary: Crossing borders

Still wrestling with fatigue from a three-day business trip, I made the 13-block walk to the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where my wife's English as a Second Language class was holding an end-of-term party.

I was greeted by Julia, an exuberant Salvadoran who, a year ago, could barely speak four words of English. Now she has a regular job that requires her to speak English, and she's planning to pursue a master's degree in teaching. This night, she spoke to me in complete English sentences.

Then it was my turn to learn. She led me onto the dance floor, demonstrated merengue, the national dance of the Dominican Republic, and another Dominican dance called bachata. And off we went.

Students from six nations shouted encouragement as I attempted what dance pros call the "walking Cuban hip motion" of bachata. Their encouragement loosened my hips a little.

When I returned from my trip, waited in a taxi line managed by a surly attendant and made the bleak drive across Queens to Manhattan, I wondered to myself, "Why would anyone live here?" The party reminded me why.

Even as large sections of America turn viciously against immigrants and look for ways to deny them access to prosperity, New York maintains an open door. In the morning, my wife teaches immigrants from China, the Ukraine and Latin America. Her evening students come from Ecuador, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Honduras.

They are here for the same reasons my ancestors came from England, Norway and Germany, and they work hard to achieve those same goals. They aren't here to freeload. They have jobs - some far below their skill levels - in a squandering of talent that marked earlier immigration eras, as well.

In a city less tolerant (and welcoming) than New York, they might be scorned and excluded and viewed as a threat to "real Americans," just as earlier waves of Irish, German, Chinese, Italian, Eastern European and Southeast Asian immigrants were greeted with xenophobic nativism on their arrivals.

Jesus, however, was an opener of doors. In a world where rules, borders and exclusions mattered intensely to people, Jesus cut through the scorn and superiority and welcomed all to his presence, especially the "last," the "least of these" and "little children."

In doing so, he violated tradition. He "blasphemed," as they defined blasphemy. He disregarded the "word of God" as revealed in ancient Scripture, saying to them, "You have heard it said ... but I say to you." Even though it was clearly against the "will of God," as his people understood that will, he touched the untouchable and cast his lot with outcasts, sinners and the weak.

I understand why the already-here routinely try to bar the next wave of newcomers; it's happened consistently since the 1750s. Pulling up the drawbridge is self-defeating, but it arises from understandable, if regrettable, fears.

But it is bizarre when modern Christians join this anti-immigration hysteria, trying to resurrect the very exclusions that Jesus broke through and then claiming to do so as "Bible believers" and "true Christians."

Not only should door-closers read the Gospels, but they should come to a party where people shout encouragement, speak proudly of former homes, and rejoice in the promise of this new home.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, <churchwellness.com>. His Web site is <morningwalkmedia.com>. 

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