Who Is My Immigrant Neighbor? Reflections on Home, Displacement, and the Imago Dei
Anyone who has ever moved to a new place knows that calling somewhere “home” is something significant. As a young person who immigrated to New York City from China, I was an urban nomad, and each new neighborhood I lived in—almost always as a minority—shaped my identity.
Moving was part of the narrative of my immigrant family, and my childhood was marked by a continual reshaping of my identity as I interacted with new and distinct neighborhoods. I experienced the tension of trying to assimilate to those around me when I was outside of my home, only to revert back to my Chinese culture at home with my family. Home was always an emotional shifting of gears for me.
Home: Humanity’s Most Visceral Ache
We are all searching for home; we are all homesick. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “Home represents humanity’s most visceral ache — and our oldest desire.” We are, each of us, longing for something more, something permanent, something better. We are longing for a sense of place—for a home.
In Genesis, the very beginning of God’s story, one of the first things God provides for Adam and Eve is a home in the Garden of Eden. But because they distrust God’s provision and promise, we experience the Fall—and from that point on, the rest of the narrative is one of a people searching for home. The people of God are taken from one home into exile, into the wilderness, back to a promised land, and then back into exile. Even the (arguably) most famous parable of the prodigal son is about home. The younger son takes leave and the father is bidding him to come home. This deep, spiritual yearning for home is evident throughout scripture.
Since Eden, we’ve never really been home.
Immigration: A Search for the Refuge of Home
God has imprinted on our hearts a yearning for a home to tend to, people to love, and a space to feast and share some of our deepest longings. He’s given us a yearning for a place to be ourselves, free from all the world outside of our homes demands. Home is a special place of comfort.
But for many immigrants, the search for home is about more than finding a comfortable place. It is often about seeking safety from relentless harm, from violent rulers and abusive regimes. Immigrants are a people departing from one place to find literal refuge for themselves, their children, their hearts, and their minds.
Theirs is a narrative of overcoming incredible despair, while not allowing that despair to be the overriding theme. Rather, there is a hope driving them to find a better place, a more suitable place of safety and survival that can fill that temporal longing for home.
We, too, can have ultimate hope that, one day, God will also fulfill our deepest longings for home.
Home: Is It Just a Fairy Tale?
In Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michele writes: “It is often supposed that despair is more intellectually credible than hope. According to the unbeliever, the Garden of Eden is just one more example of our great naiveté—the stuff of fairy tales…In other words, fairy tales tell not just good news but true news: death has no final word, evil is vanquished, justice reigns. This world of make-believe is, in fact, the world we all want.”
Immigrants are tangibly seeking the very thing we all (including God’s people throughout the ages) yearn for in the depths of our spirits: home. This shared ache should move us to empathy for the sojourner among us.
Michele continues, “Moreover, according to the Christian, it is a real world we can call home. The genre of fairy tale was, for both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis…(a larger) belief that the sun would rise on a new world and that God’s people would indeed live happily ever after…In their stories of hobbits and orcs, fauns and beavers and Father Christmas, Tolkien and Lewis told the story of home as the Scriptures tell it: the world has fallen from its original perfection, but it will one day be restored. The enduring legacy of these stories testify to the resonance of their hope. Humans long for the thaw of winter and the return of the king. They want to go home.”
And, indeed, we are not left with a mere fairy tale. The King will return.
God’s Homecoming: What Does It Look Like?
God’s is a transformative vision of the future. We find this incredible picture in Revelation 5:9-10:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them ya kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
And in Revelation 7:9 we read:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”
We see the diversity of nations celebrated in the new order of the Kingdom of God. His is a Kingdom where the dignity of every tribe and tongue is highlighted. Understanding this picture of God’s redemptive narrative fulfilled should move us to yearn for and pursue what God has shown us: a display of the glory of Christ in the gathering of a diverse and unified people redeemed.
On diversity coupled with unity, missiologist Andrew Walls writes in The Missionary Movement of Christian History, “The bewildering paradox at the heart of the Christian confession is not just the obvious one of the divine humanity; it is the twofold affirmation of the utter Jewishness of Jesus and the boundless universality of the Divine Son . . . On the one hand it is a seemingly infinite series of cultural specificities—each in principle as locally specific as that utterly Jewish Jesus. On the other hand, in a historical view, the different specificities belong together. They have a certain coherence and interdependence in the coherence and interdependence of total humanity in the One who made humanity his own.”
The “different specificities” converge in the cumulative work of Christ to bring all cultures into one symphony of God’s realized redemption. It was Christ who moved and migrated towards us to redeem us and who was crucified outside the city walls. It is Christ who calls us to this vision of a great reversal of the outsider is now the ultimate insider.
There will be no refugees in the Kingdom to come.
There will be no such thing as an immigrant.
There will be distinct cultural expressions.
There will be diversity of voices.
God’s inclusive and comprehensive gesture to "come and see” does not ask for cultural conformity, but rather celebrates the multitude of voices. Each person and each culture is part of what God has created as His expression of the Imago Dei.
Our posture—one of seeing the foreigner and welcoming the stranger—then, is informed by God showing us that the mark of the consummation of His Kingdom is a bringing of all outsiders in and pushing of all insiders toward His vision of diverse oneness. It is only in this Kingdom of diverse oneness that we will truly be home.
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Peter Ong is the Manager of Church and Community Engagement at Hope for New York.