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A Time to Speak Up for Immigrants, Refugees

Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders wait to cross into Jordan in this undated photo.
Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders wait to cross into Jordan in this undated photo. | (Photo: Reuters)

When we think of biblical stories or passages about time, few of us turn to Esther. We'll turn to Genesis, where God makes time by separating the dark from the light and the sun from the moon. We'll look at Ecclesiastes, where the Preacher meditates on the times and seasons for everything. We'll consider the birth of Christ, an event that, according to Paul, occurred "in the fullness of time."

But Esther offers deep insights on timing as well. When it becomes clear that Esther will need to take a stand for her people at the risk of her life, her uncle Mordecai wonders: "And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"

It's a question which resonates with many of us. "What if I am called to this ministry, this role, this position, this job, this relationship...for such a time as this?"

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Important as such personal insights are, however, we must consider the context of this story if we want to thoroughly understand how it applies to us today.

During the time before the story unfolds, the Jews had been in exile, forcibly displaced migrants across borders – much like modern-day stateless refugees. In the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, many returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and resume their national identity.

But not all did. For many reasons, some remained displaced. Migration is arduous. Thousands of years later, we still see refugees trudging by foot for weeks in search of safety. And some are simply unable to make the journey, preferring the known risks of staying over the unknown risks of running.

The situation in Esther's time was similar, if not worse. A sizeable population of immigrant Jews remained in the land of Persia, where Ahasuerus (Xerxes in some translations) was king. They were sojourners, temporary residents, foreigners or aliens without the rights of citizens.

We know the story: After the king dismisses his queen, Vashti, he begins the hunt for a new bride. Esther – an orphan in the care of her cousin Mordecai – emerges as the ideal candidate. But Esther has a secret: She is not Persian. Mordecai advises her to keep her immigrant status hidden, and Esther becomes the king's new bride.

The plot thickens when Haman, who despises Mordecai, is promoted as the second-highest authority in the land. When Haman discovers that Mordecai is an immigrant, he devises a plan to not only execute Mordecai, but to kill all his people as well.

Imagine the fear among the immigrant community as they heard rumors about what would happen. Imagine the racial profiling that would have to take place to determine if a person was Jewish.

Mordecai, however, sees a way out. He asks Esther to reveal her identity as an immigrant and to plead with the king for her people.

Her first response is fear, but Mordecai, at the tipping point of the story, asks her to consider – is it possible that she came to the throne "for such a time as this"?

Esther listens. She advocates for her people – even at the risk of her life.

The story concludes with a happy ending, commemorated every year in the Jewish feast of Purim. The king hears her counsel, decides not to exterminate the Jews and sentences Haman to death.

Esther, a member of an immigrant community, has spoken up and defended herself and her people. And because of her fortitude, the community grows. The story concludes with many people converting to Judaism, inspired by the fasting, prayer and courage of the people.

Fast-forward to modern times. As a Christian, I don't have any sort of physical crown or temporal royal power – but I believe I have a different type of royal position. I read the New Testament, and it tells me that I have unbelievable worth and identity as a child of God. But with that identity comes responsibility: I must speak up and put love in action.

And when I look at the book of Esther, I see many parallels to today.

I see refugees around the globe running from oppression and suffering, remaining stateless while the world watches.

I see immigrants in my community being racially profiled for the color of their skin and asked to reveal their citizenship status.

I see politicians at every level listening to unwise, unjust counsel.

I see a Christian community not taking time to listen to immigrants and learn why they have risked crossing borders to survive.

I see us choosing simplistic explanations, saying things like, "Take down the doors or walls at your house and see what that feels like" – uncharitably caricaturing the perspective of those with whom we disagree.

In short, I see us not following the way of Jesus.

Jesus fulfills all the instruction of the Old Testament on welcoming, loving and caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner.

Jesus never asks how anyone became hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, widowed, sick, orphaned or imprisoned.

Jesus reminds us that as His children, we have a royal duty to comfort all those longing for His compassion and mercy.

Above all, He says we will encounter Him and serve Him in the process.

In Revelation, we see Jesus as an outsider and stranger, knocking on doors and looking for shelter. "Behold," he says, "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me." A few verses earlier, he warns the church against sitting on the fence of indifference.

I challenge my royal brothers and sisters to understand we cannot be lukewarm. We cannot sit in comfort and complacency when God has called us to something different.

There is a time to speak up – in our families, in our friendships, in our churches, in our government – and that time is now.

Karen Spencer is the Church and Community Engagement Manager for World Relief Memphis. An immigrant, a world-traveler, a wife and mother, she connects the dots between the beautiful people she has met the world over and the biblical call to love them.

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