With the recent cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, these are especially difficult times for nearly 800,000 DACA recipients (also known as Dreamers), immigrants brought into the country as children and who are without legal status, and continuously so for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in the U.S. Beginning next March, unless Congress intervenes, approximately 30,000 DACA-recipients per month will lose their work permits and be made eligible for deportation, even though they generally had no say in coming into the country and have often only known America as home.
I am a DACA-recipient. Yet despite great uncertainties ahead, I recognize that I have many reasons to be thankful this season—the most important being that I came to know Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord as an immigrant, an undocumented immigrant. Yes, I'm a product of the church welcoming the stranger.
My story began with my mom, who landed in the U.S. as a graduate student in the mid-1990s. We come from an atheist family background in China, but by God's grace, there were Christians where my mom was studying in Iowa who were committed to living out the biblical commandment to practice hospitality, which in the Greek of the New Testament literally means to practice loving strangers. Her first English teacher, Mary, and a school librarian, Sherril, both welcomed her, a foreigner, and showered her with love in Jesus' name. When mom finished her studies, and landed a job in Chicago, Sherril and Mary made sure to connect her to their extended family members and to a local church. Mom was still a seeker at the time, hesitant to give into "religion" but profoundly grateful for the hospitality and authenticity of her friends and sensing a difference that their Christian faith had made in their lives.
Soon after my mom obtained her work visa, I was able to join her in the U.S. on a dependent visa. It was hard for me to adjust to life here at first without knowing any English, but, over time, I learned the language and made friends. I would also tag along with mom to church events, and came to learn about God's love for me, for all of creation, radically displayed through Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
Around this same time, I also came to find out that our immigration attorney had made serious mistakes on our paper work, compounded by other factors outside of our control, that resulted in me losing my immigration status as a 12-year-old. My mom tried to appeal our case, but to no avail.
The discovery of my undocumented status turned my world upside down. I questioned my identity and my worth intensely, as a lack of documentation meant that I couldn't work, drive, or (at the time) attend university. Did God still love me the same? As an insecure adolescent wrestling with questions of my own identity, I desperately wanted to know.
The answer to the question, of course, is an unquestionable yes. But it's not always so apparent given the ways that undocumented immigrants are portrayed in the media, or even talked about in the Church. And I, too, needed a lot of reassurance arriving at that conclusion, first from God's word, and, perhaps just as importantly, from God's people. While some may have distanced themselves from me because of my undocumented status, there were more people who proactively loved on me and stood up for me. My former youth pastor, for one, didn't avoid me or my situation because it was too controversial or too messy, but actively learned about the issue and spoke up for me in and outside the church, including with legislators. Our Christian family friends encouraged mom and me through words and action, and prayed fervently for and with us. Organizations like World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table lived out Proverbs 31:8 and advocated for policies that would allow undocumented immigrants like me to come out of the shadows and earn our way toward legal status.
My mom and I are Christians today because God's people welcomed the stranger. Our faith is stronger today, despite the circumstances, because we study the life and example of Jesus, and witness Christ's love and justice tangibly manifested through his followers, transcending cultural, social, and political affiliations. The Church's response on immigration, as the response on poverty, abortion, environment, racial inequality and other social issues, is part of Gospel work. Any issue that concerns human life and dignity concerns God, and should therefore His people. Jesus himself lived the ultimate example of justice while on earth: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, crossing cultural and, yes, even religious boundaries to love people in Truth. Jesus chose to spend most of his time with the very people that we are, paradoxically, quick to marginalize or castigate today.
But I know the story doesn't have to end with the stranger being turned away. Mom and I are living proof of that. As we prepare to spend our eighteenth Thanksgiving in the U.S. with Mary, my mom's former English teacher from Iowa, and her extended family, I realize that it just took one person to show radical hospitality to a stranger, an immigrant, to help change the course of our lives for eternity. For that, I'm forever grateful.
Liz Dong now works with World Relief as the Midwest Church Mobilizer for the Evangelical Immigration Table; she is one of several leaders responsible for launching the Voices of Christian Dreamers project.