The following has been excerpted from a talk by Amaury Tañón-Santos, a guest speaker at Cornell University on April 10. The event was called “Welcoming the Stranger,” sponsored by CUSLAR and Cornell United Religious Work. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
I come to this conversation wearing many hats. The formal hat is more of a collar. I am a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. I’ve also been a parish minister in four congregations that are mostly made up of migrant folks.
Also, I’m Puerto Rican, which means being in a strange state where I was born an American citizen, not as a natural right, but as an act of law. I want you to understand this strange relationship that the United States insists on having with Puerto Rico. It makes the island and the people of Puerto Rico not a part of the United States, but property of the United States.
I consider myself a migrant, but I come with a blue passport. So I carry those contradictions and identities as I talk about welcoming the stranger, and why is it that Christians particularly, and religious people generally, should be compelled to engage.
One thing that should compel Christians to welcome the stranger, especially around the immigration issue, is that the Holy Scripture, the whole set of books that make up the Bible, is the story of foreign status.
If you think about early Jewish history and the calling of the family that becomes God’s people, these are people enslaved in Egypt. They leave Egypt and are about to arrive to the Promised Land — and now there are all sorts of political problematics around that, especially with Netanyahu poised to be Prime Minister of Israel again.
But the story of the Exodus is that migrants, ex-slaves, are called to take over the holy land. Close to the end of the book of Deuteronomy, a phrase that will accompany Jews and Christians is: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” The core of Jewish identity and how that is inherited by Christians is marked by the wandering of our ancestors.
Throughout the Hebrew scriptures you find stories of people on the move, for political reasons, economic reasons or because of divine intervention, that is, when God calls them to move.
It is core to understanding these sacred stories that they are about being foreigners, and having foreigners among them. There are mandates throughout the Hebrew scriptures to treat foreigners well because you were once a foreigner. Exodus 12, Leviticus 24, Numbers 9 and 15, Deuteronomy 1 — they all talk about having one common law that would apply to both native and foreign-born in the structures of government in Israel. Exodus 22 calls that there should be no oppression to resident aliens because you were once an alien in Egypt.
The New Testament continues this legacy. Matthew 35:31-46 is a set of mandates for what we should be doing as Christians. We will be judged in the end times, says Matthew 35, based on how we welcomed others. Inasmuch as you did or did not welcome the least of My siblings, you did or did not welcome Me.
Galatians is an interesting book in the New Testament. Paul writes to the church in Galatia, a province on the western edge of the Roman Empire. Galatia is having issues with barbarians crossing the border and intermingling with the people. The church in Galatia was trying to support the narrative of the empire. Paul tells them, “No! Everyone must come together to be a church in Galatia.” Embrace the opportunity, says Paul. The church is called to welcome everybody. Acknowledge where they’re coming from, and become a new community.
I’ll finish with a call to be in solidarity, and this means not only what we say, but how we act. You can be in solidarity by being aware, and also by accompanying, by practicing acompañamiento. Not only knowing what’s happening, but also being aware of the intersectionalities.
The immigration issue in the United States is a question of welcoming people from throughout the world. They’re all connected to political and economic actions of the United States, which go as far back as the Doctrine of Discovery in 15th Century Europe, to Manifest Destiny, in a country that would become an empire, and its colonial holdings.
Immigration is an issue of poverty: Why are people obligated to move? Poverty is an issue of structure, it’s not an issue of state of being. I did not choose to be born poor. Poor was done to me! Foreign debt is not something that countries decide to go into. There are structures that perpetuate that.
Acompañamiento is practicing presence and engagement. How do I give fully of myself? How vulnerable am I willing to become, to be changed by experiences I will have? What would it look like for us, residents and some of you citizens of the empire, to strip yourselves of your capacities, abilities and privileges and be with in a way that would transform you?
Photo: Hope In Focus / Steve Pavey.