Friday, March 26, 2021

The Foreigners Among You

      When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

— Leviticus 19:33 (NIV) 

Xiao Zhen Xie was attacked last week as she walked near 7th and Market in San Francisco. It happened in broad daylight, at around 10 AM. A man later identified as Steven Jenkins hit her 83-year-old companion and then her before fleeing. He was quickly caught and arrested. The attack left her with a swollen eye that she can’t see out of. It left her companion, Knoc Pham, with a broken nose and neck fractures. The attack was unprovoked, and a possible racial motive is being investigated.
     After the attack was reported nationally, someone started a GoFundMe to help with Zhen Xie’s medical bills and other expenses. Money started pouring in, and earlier this week the fund had accumulated nearly a million dollars. That’s encouraging. 

     You know what’s even more encouraging?

     Zhen Xie has refused the money. She is insistent that it be given to the Asian American community to combat racism, her family says."She insists on making this decision saying this issue is bigger than her," an update on the GoFundMe page read. "This is my grandma, grandpa, and our family’s decision. We hope everyone can understand our decision.”

     I think everyone does understand. We understand unselfishness when we see it. We understand a determination to not be made bitter and hateful after experiencing something so reprehensible. We understand when a person can see beyond their own pain to an opportunity to perhaps make a difference to someone else who’s suffering. We understand the difference it makes when someone sees herself as part of a larger community. 

     There are those in our country — hopefully few — who’ll tell you that immigrants are nothing but a drain on our resources. There are those in the church — hopefully even fewer — who’ll say it. Sometimes those attitudes even produce violence. As we look at the real issues going on at our southern border, at overwhelmed workers doing their best to deal with an untenable situation, some who would never say such things or act violently might wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to not have to cope with immigrants at all. They might wonder if it’s worth it.

     Zhen Xie gave away life-changing money. Clearly she didn’t come to America looking to get something for nothing. She gave it away to help the larger community because she wanted to contribute something to the city and nation that she calls home now. I have no idea what her citizenship or status are. She’s an American in the ways that matter, the ways that count.

     I hope you have the privilege of knowing a lot of immigrant families. I do. Immigrant families live in my neighborhood. They’re part of my church. Can I tell you about a few?

     There’s the husband and wife whose son died of COVID last year. She posted recently, “The more time passes the more I miss you son. It's a lie that time heal wounds. Simply with God's help you learn to live with pain.” Every day she posts prayers, Scripture, and encouragement for others as she learns with God’s help to survive and carry on. Her hope and faith shame me and strengthen me and show me how to trust God more completely.

     There are three of the guys I serve with as elders and ministers, three of the best guys I know. They’re devoted to the Lord, the church, their families, and their communities. I know very well what that devotion often costs them. They serve with compassion, with joy, with love, and with faith. Much of what I know about ministry and pastoral care I’ve learned from them.

     There’s another guy at my church who came to the US from a refugee camp in Guinea. He’s never expected help, but is always gracious and thankful if he receives it. He works hard and his contribution to the life of the church can’t be overstated. He has urged us for years to be mindful of others in faraway parts of the world who are in the situation he was blessed to be saved from.

     There’s the guy who came to the US to work so that he could send money back to the church that he planted in his home country. A church that his wife and children are tending to there while he lives here. He misses them deeply. What a sacrifice.

     And there’s the guy who’s come to my city to work for the Illinois Department of Health on COVID. His family is in another state; he’s only able to see them occasionally. He’s recently filed a waiver that would allow him to be fast-tracked for permanent residency since he has “exceptional ability” and is working “in the national interest.” He does, and he is, and we’re better because he’s here. I’m privileged to be able to pray for immigration officials to look favorably on his application.

     The thing is, I could go on and on. I could name many more without even straining, many more people who have come to American to build lives for themselves and those they care about and whom I’m better for knowing.

     God told his people in the Old Testament that they were to love the foreigners among them as they loved themselves, their own countrymen. They were supposed to be able to identify with foreigners, having been resident aliens in Egypt themselves. In fact, they were never supposed to feel like the Promised Land belonged to them: God brought them out of Egypt and gave the land to them, so they were to live there “like foreigners and strangers.”

      When the writer of Hebrews wanted a way to describe people who put their faith in God’s promises instead of what they can gain in this life, he borrowed that phrase aliens and strangers — meaning that Christians ought to be able to relate to and sympathize with the immigrants among us if for no other reason than we should  know what it’s like to be away from home.

     Maybe that’s sometimes our problem though: feeling like we’re away from home. The truth is that it’s easy to start feeling at home with our lifestyle, our standard of living, the way our neighborhood looks, our kids’ school, our property values. And then it’s easier to believe it when people in positions of power tell us that we should be afraid that these other people might take away what we love. 

     When you feel that way, remember that if our home is in heaven we have nothing to lose. That’ll let you concentrate instead on meeting all the wonderful people that could be a part of your life because they’ve come here from somewhere else.

     Trust me. You’ll feel like a million bucks.


Friday, March 12, 2021

What We Saw on Mulberry Street

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

— 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV) 

When I was a kid, Dr. Seuss was my jam. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was my

     It’s true. My mom — and probably my dad — read it to me a lot. When I was able to read on my own, I read it a lot. There are still sections, to this day, that I have memorized. 

     So if you were following the news about Dr. Seuss this week, you can imagine that it sort of caught my attention.

     In case you missed it: Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the foundation which has continued publishing the good Doctor’s books after his death, announced this week that they would be pulling from publication six titles that contain images of a racist and insensitive nature. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong," Dr. Seuss Enterprises told The Associated Press in a statement. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”

     The titles affected are If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot's Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat's Quizzer.

     Oh, and my favorite too. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street is on the list.

     Of course, the decision by a publishing company to no longer publish titles that it owns and with which it can presumably do what it wants has caused all manner of anger, cries of censorship (if so, it’s self-censorship), and long diatribes about the evils of “Cancel Culture.” To be clear: Doctor Seuss books aren’t going away. If you want to read Scrambled Eggs Super! to your kids or grandkids, no one is going to kick down your door and haul you off to some Seussian nightmare of a jail. The organization has made a decision to remove a few titles from publication after listening to feedback from teachers and parents and consulting with a panel of experts. With everything else happening in our world, it should have been a fairly minor piece of news that might have had a few people scratching their heads and wondering what about Dr. Seuss is racist. But somehow, in this polarized world, Dr. Seuss has become the latest hill to die on.

     I shouldn’t even dignify the whole thing by writing about it. But I’m already into it now.

     First of all, the anger and “outrage” over the decision is predictable. It really isn’t even about Dr. Seuss — it’s about our discomfort with a world that’s changing. Some of us, Christians included, are bumping up against the reality that “things that used to be alright” aren’t any longer. We don’t know where we stand in such a world. We don’t know how far those changes are going to go. We wonder what else that we used to do, like, read, watch, listen to, and participate in will one day be declared Not OK. Or even suffer the indignity of the dreaded cancellation. Somehow we’ve come to believe that our personal rights to have what we want, when we want, whether it bothers anyone else or not are superior to, well, everything else.

     When I read the news about Mulberry Street, I had a knee-jerk reaction that kind of went that way, “No, not Marco! Not Mulberry Street! 

     And then right after that, I remembered exactly which image is the one that’s in question. I’m not kidding; even before I read which one it was, I could see it in my mind. I might have read Mulberry Street a few times to my son, but I’m pretty sure I remembered it from when I was a kid. Which says something about how influential those books are to young readers, and why Dr. Seuss Enterprises is right to take this seriously.

     Look, the image in question doesn’t seem to be mean-spirited. You’d have to ask the Doctor about intent, and he’s not with us any longer. But it is an exaggerated caricature of an Asian person, with a bit of verse that reinforces a stereotype. I don’t think it contributed to prejudicing me against Asian people, but then again no one ever thinks they’re racist. 

     But this is the thing: What I think about Mulberry Street is irrelevant.

     This is, I think, what we don’t understand if we’ve never been part of a minority. What we think is always most important. The way we want things done is the right way. What we say is offensive is, and what we say is not offensive isn’t, and if people are offended when they shouldn’t be then they just need to have thicker skin. What we intended is what should be heard and understood, and if you hear something in a way we didn’t intend then you just didn’t understand it. I don’t mean to be a jerk. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. But it’s true. It’s the only way to explain why we can’t just hear it when someone who’s part of a minority says that something we’ve said or done is offensive. It’s the only way to explain why our knee-jerk reaction is so often to justify it and tell them why they’re wrong to be offended and even turn the blame around on them instead of just saying we’re sorry and doing what we can to remedy the situation.

     Mulberry Street, if you’ve never read it, is about a kid named Marco who’s been tasked by his dad to pay attention to what he sees on his way home from school. Thinking what he actually sees — “just a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street” (it was written in 1938) — isn’t interesting enough, Marco turns it into a huge parade. Maybe that’s a parable. Maybe we prefer not to admit what we see: that some things are insensitive, have always been insensitive, and should have been dealt with decades ago. Maybe it’s more fun for us, and less embarrassing, to create a big parade out of Cancel Culture, censorship, and faux outrage.

     I get it. I like Mulberry Street. But if an image in a kids’ book is offensive to a community of people, then I think we ought to call the plain horse and wagon what they are and get rid of that image. 

     If you’re a Christian, then I think we’d agree that we must deal with other people from an ethic of love. Let me just remind you of what Paul says about love. He says, among other things, that it’s patient. Patience is required to hear someone. He says it’s kind: What’s the kind response to this story? He says love does not boast and is not proud: In what ways does this story expose my pride? It doesn’t dishonor others — by demeaning them with an image, or by insisting that their offense at the image is misplaced. It isn’t self-seeking or easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs — so let’s drop the Cancel Culture misdirection. It doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

     Even when the truth stings a little.

     Christians, let’s not make this a thing. This isn’t about censorship or the limitation of rights or Marxism or whatever fever dream we’re taking shots at this week. This is about people trying to do a good thing by making the world a little more accepting, a little more loving for people of all races and ethnicities.

     Surely we can affirm that.