then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
I’m thinking of this line in Deuteronomy. God’s people are regularly reminded that they were once slaves in Egypt. This reality is encoded in their law and enshrouded in their holidays. The reality of slavery even informed Jews of their inhumane experiences during the Holocaust. In 1947 a ship set sail from WWII France with 4500 Jewish Holocaust survivors and refugees en route to Palestine. The ship was called the Exodus.
As a white American, I am an immigrant. If I were Korean-American I would call myself 4th or 5th generation. I’m not sure when my ancestors came over from Europe, I just know they didn’t start out over here.
In the Hebrew bible, past is prologue: the Law is given with the reminder that slavery is in the Hebrews’ past. For many Americans, immigration is in our past. It is a complex matter. Some of us immigrated due to the potato famine in Ireland. Some came to mine coal in Appalachia. Some came through chattel slavery and didn’t get emancipated for 300 years. Others have come to study medicine or to escape persecution in their home land. People from all of these streams of immigration have made this country stronger.
Immigration is affirmation. It is a testament to the strong allure and promise of America. But we have forgotten our history or we have disowned it or we have disowned others from it. How can we know what it means to be American if we don’t know our story?
Our story also includes the decimation of the original people. This decimation is still continuing as the people of Standing Rock are fiercely defending their water supply. And I fear a repeating of history is about to take place. Winter has fallen over the North Dakota plains and an ultimatum has been issued for protesters to leave. But where are they supposed to go? And who will protect their water if the sheriff won’t even protect their rights?
I feel like a history lesson is in order. First unit is a primer on who was here first and what that means ethically. The second lesson is on what it means to immigrate: to be a refugee, an enslaved laborer, a famine flee-er, or a dream-seeker. People of faith are people of stories and of history. Let us know our own history of enslavement, freedom, movement and struggle. And let us let that history guide us to loving our new neighbors washing ashore from distant lands as well as our old friends who greeted us when we were the tired, poor huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.