Once, Twice, Three Times an Immigrant

Ground Zero mural

Ground Zero mural commissioned by Yakov Smirnoff

As Yakov Smirnoff would often say, “I love this country.” The Ukrainian-born comedian built a sizeable career on this line and his signature Russian reversals.

In America, you always find a party.
In Russia, Party always find you.

For Smirnoff, these jokes were only partly tongue in cheek. They reflected an abiding appreciation for the economic and personal freedoms of his newly adopted country. On July 4, 1986, Smirnoff took the Oath of Allegiance on Ellis Island with a scale-size model of the Statue of Liberty in his hand. After the 9-11 attacks he used $100,000 of his own money to mount a patriotic mural near Ground Zero.[1]

In many ways, Smirnoff fits the classic immigrant profile envisioned by Emma Lazarus in her poem of 1883:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Those words, memorialized on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, are not without controversy. Many Americans probably think that there are enough tired and poor in this country already, and are genuinely horrified at the prospects of huddled masses teeming on shore, or anywhere else for that matter. According to a Fox News poll in 2010, 43% of registered voters want a reduction in the number of legal immigrants.[2]

Given these sentiments, not all immigrants like me have felt welcomed or wanted in all quarters. And, to be fair, not all of us were exiles rushing into the arms of Lady Liberty. My parents emigrated from a depressed post-war England to carve out a better life in colonial Africa, and emigrated again when massacres and military coups made family life untenable. My wife and I left a peaceful, prosperous country we love to serve the church in another peaceful, prosperous country we love. Today I can rightly claim citizenship in three nations, although my speech betrays me as an outsider in every one of them. But no matter what my passport may say, I remain first and foremost a citizen of the kingdom of God.

We expected to find a smattering of xenophobia and nativism here and there. Finding those attitudes in the church was, I have to confess, a little harder to take.

On one occasion a brother in Christ threatened to send me “home.” He could do no such thing, of course, but he must have thought that the balance of power was stacked in his favor. Why do Christians play these power games? There are many reasons, I suppose, and none of them are new. Even the apostle John faced opposition from a brother who loved to be first (3 John 9).

A greater challenge would come in the pulpit. As a preacher based in America, how could I avoid commenting on the moral challenges facing the church? The men of Issachar’s tribe understood the times, and knew what was good for Israel (1 Chronicles 12:32). A future generation of Jewish leaders lacked the same vision (Matthew 16:3). Our own times include an increasingly bitter dose of partisan politics. Almost every election cycle features a morally contentious “wedge issue.” Recent examples at the state and federal levels have included embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, and gambling.

Foreigners have no business commenting on these issues, or so I was told. On this same line of reasoning Amos – an inhabitant of Judah – had no business denouncing the errors of Israel. And Paul – a Jew, a Cilician, and a Roman citizen – had no business addressing the troublemakers of Crete (Titus 1:12-13).  Thankfully, most us of know that truth transcends political parties and national boundaries.

Speaking of Amos, the prophet cried out on behalf of the poor and downtrodden (2:7). This had nothing to do with spreading the wealth; Amos was not a proto-socialist. It did have something to do with power, and the way it was being used and abused. And it did have something to do with empathy: on being able to creatively imagine what it was like to walk in someone else’s shoes (which, arguably, is at the core of Jesus’ teaching on the Golden Rule [3]). In short, it did have something to do with how we treat our fellow man. As Christians, we must be willing to imagine what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who is not exactly like us.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, May 2012, p. 8.]

[1] Alex Frangos, “Trade Center Mural Is Retired,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, 2003, p. B.8.

[2] Dana Blanton, “Fox News Poll: States Should Have Right to Make Immigration Laws,” foxnews.com, May 20, 2010. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/05/20/fox-news-poll-states-right-make-immigration-laws/

[3] Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 144-147.

© 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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