Compassion: Our common sacred ground

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people remembered their history of slavery and oppression when they were foreigners in Egypt. They knew what it felt like to be mistreated as strangers, and they were reminded to treat the strangers in their midst with understanding and compassion.

In the New Testament, Jesus likewise praised those who offered hospitality and compassion. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

A recent headline in the Guardian newspaper reads, “Human migration will be a defining issue of this century.” People have been moving from one place to another from the beginning of human history. The story of Abraham begins with a migration. The Lord says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Likewise, the story of Jesus begins with a migration. An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt” (Matt 2:13).

Why do people migrate? For adventure, for better opportunities, to flee violence and danger? What must it have been like for the Holy Family when they were forced to leave their home, fleeing the violent King Herod? What must it have been like for them to arrive in Egypt with nothing, seeking safety and protection among strangers in a strange land? According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide today. We are witnessing the highest levels of human displacement ever recorded.

When I lived in Denver, I had the wonderful opportunity of teaching English classes for refugees. My students had fled the horrors of war and ethnic persecution in many countries – Burma, Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more. When they wrote essays about their experience of moving to the United States, two words appeared again and again – freedom and safety. Freedom and safety. The United States became a safe haven for these people who had been traumatized by war and violence.

The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra has served among the working poor and immigrants for decades. As an ordained minister, she knows the biblical references to “welcoming the stranger” and she knows the biblical references to “law and order.” Two different emphases when thinking about the issue of migration, both important. And yet, she asks, aren’t all people of faith called to show compassion, to “feel with” the needs of others? Compassion, she says, becomes “our common sacred ground.” Salvatierra will be speaking in the Iowa Wesleyan Chapel on Sunday at 1:30 pm. Following her keynote, there will be breakout sessions led by community leaders and immigration experts from across Iowa. The event is called. “Real Conversation: Migration in Your Community.” It is free and open to the public. You are invited to join the conversation!