From Holes in the Ground…
As far back as I can trace it, my family comes from Germany. Little is known of their time there, but at some point in the late 1700s they traveled to modern day Russia with promises of free land from Catherine the Great. They traveled to the east and eventually down the Volga River. When they arrived at their destination, they were surprised to find land, but no towns. As a result, they spent their first Russian winter digging holes in the ground.
As German influence waned, however, the Volga Germans did not always live in peace with their Russian neighbors. As legend has it, one of my first ancestors to immigrate to America did so because in the late 1800s he got in a fight with an off-duty Russian police officer, which left the man hospitalized or dead, depending on who is telling the story. Seeking to avoid jail or death, my ancestor fled to America. The view of the past which says, “Once upon a time, all American immigrants were hard-working, honest folk with big dreams” doesn’t ring true when I think of my family history.
My distant ancestor was soon joined by many of his family, friends, and countrymen in the Dakota regions. There was a mixture of good and bad like all immigrant populations throughout history. In the not so good category was a man who was involved in a horse and buggy drive-by shooting. He got shot in the leg with a musket in the early 1900s. Two brothers were known for carrying rebar in their boots in case a sudden fight broke out. People were known to cross the street when they came, rather than pass directly by them. My grandfather once had a relative chase him across a farm and to his home with an axe. My grandpa never said why, but as one salacious rumor has it, my grandpa had come across some bodies buried in that relative’s field.
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We aren’t all bad in my family, though. Despite having to drop out of school after the third grade so he could work, my grandfather became a land owner, local businessman, and even town mayor. My grandmother was a teacher and award-winning pathfinder leader. We have farmers, tradesmen, medical professionals, and educators who have helped form and shape this country in remarkable ways. The years have seen my family go from poor farmers living in holes in the ground to upstanding citizens who are contributing to their communities, workplaces, and churches.
…Into the Land of the Free
At first, my early ancestors weren’t the ideal immigrants I wished them to be. Some of them were criminals. Some relied on government farm subsidies or free land. They spoke almost exclusively German for several generations. All that said, I am thankful for America. My ancestors who stayed behind in Russia are no more. They were part of one of the largest genocides ever recorded. In the 1940s, during the height of World War II, Volga Germans who remained were imprisoned or killed. Some of them starved to death in sight of full grain bins. Without immigration to America, we would have all perished.
Beyond the initial escape to a more friendly nation, America and Christianity provided opportunities for growth and redemption. Each generation took on more and more of American and Christian values. The crime lowered along with alcohol consumption and gambling. Education, kindness, and income all increased, and a group of wandering farmers became proud Americans.
At its best, this is what America and the church does.
It takes the poor.
It takes the refugees.
It takes the despised minorities.
And it redeems them into the image-bearers God intends them to be.
There is an inevitability in immigration. Immigrants will come. We may want them to, or we may not, but they will come. Laws, and walls, and agencies won’t stop them, not completely, anyway. So the American Christian is faced with a decision. In light of the inevitable, what will we do?
America and Christianity welcomed my ancestors with open arms. The powerful and positive culture shaped and transformed our family in eternally rewarding ways. Because of my immigration history, I choose the see all immigrants as bearers of the divine image. They may not deserve it, but neither did those who came before them.
If we are worried about the law, what greater law exists than “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself”? Have we not broken God’s law time and time again? If we are worried about free handouts, have we not accepted the greatest free handout of all time in Christ’s sacrifice? Are we so unaware of our own immigration into God’s Kingdom? Have we lost sight of where we came from and what we were?
When we realize our history, how can we withhold from others what has been so beneficial for us?