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Jul 03, 2018 | The Rev. Sam Todd

A Nation of Immigrants

This morning, anticipating the 4th of July by three days, we celebrate Independence Day, one of two national holidays which is also a church holy day, the other one being Thanksgiving.  We have much to be thankful for in addition to our independence.  President Kennedy, in his book by the same title, called us A Nation of Immigrants.

We descend religiously from the ancient Hebrews who were themselves once migrants.  During much of the Book of Genesis, the Hebrews were a nomadic pastoral people moving with their flocks of sheep from place to place in search of greener pastures (cf. Hebs 11:8 f). Then came a famine.  “When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘go down and buy grain for us there that we may live and not die’” (Gen. 42:1f NRSV).   By miraculous providence, Joseph, a younger brother, had become a mighty official in Egypt.  He invited his brothers meet Pharaoh.  “Pharaoh said to his brothers, ‘What is your occupation?’  And they said to Pharaoh, ‘Your servants are shepherds as our ancestors were….  We have come to reside as aliens in the land; for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan.  Now we ask you, let your servants settle in the land of Goshen’” (Gen. 47:3f).  This Pharaoh did.

Generations later, after a nativist reaction in Egypt, the government enslaved these Hebrew immigrants.  The Book of Exodus recounts God’s liberation of them from Egypt and his giving them the Law at Sinai.  Their pilgrimage toward the promised land resumes in the Book of Numbers, at the end of which, they are on the eastern shore of the Jordan River.  Just here on the brink of their triumph, Moses calls the people together to remind them of crucial parts of the Law their ancestors had received.   He anticipates the time when the successful Hebrews are comfortably settled in Canaan and are themselves the normative population and must decide how to treat the aliens among them.  Moses says, “the Lord your God is God of Gods and Lord of Lords, mighty and awesome…who executes justice for the orphan and widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt. 10:17-19 NRSV).  The divine command to love the stranger is repeated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt. 5:46 NRSV)

We are a nation of immigrants drawn hither out of many kindreds and tongues and often not received happily by the Americans already here.  “Who are these people with strange foreign faces, marring our land, spoiling our pleasant places?”  So spoke Chief Powhattan, one hundred per cent red blooded American.  In 1607 he was about to sever the head of Englishman John Smith until his daughter, Pocahontas, bodily interceded.  She later married John Rolfe who introduced tobacco as a crop in Virginia, a very valuable one it turned out.  Some folk came here seeking business opportunity; others came in bondage.  In 1619 Rolfe bought 20 African slaves from a Dutch ship.  They preceded by ten years the Pilgrims who formed the Massachusetts Bay colony.  Those Calvinists came fleeing religious oppression, seeking religious freedom for themselves.   Some of my ancestors were among the English colonists of Virginia but most of them Scotch-Irish.  My namesake, Samuel Rutherford, was a Puritan divine in Scotland who wrote the book Lex Rex  (The Law is King).  After the Restoration on monarchy in 1660, was marked for execution but died before they could kill him.

 “During the decade of the 1820’s only 129,000 ‘alien passengers’ entered the United States…in the 1830’s the number swelled to 540,000 of whom 44 per cent were Irish, 30 per cent German and 15 per cent English; this figure was tripled for the 1840’s and rose to 2,814,554 for the 1850’s (S. Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, page 479).  Some of our ancestors came here seeking opportunity; some came in bondage; some came fleeing religious or political oppression and others, many, many others came here in desperate, dire poverty.   Potatoes, the staple food in Ireland, were destroyed by blight in the 1840’s.  “During the famine [that followed]  about million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland causing the island’s population to fall by 20% to 25%”  (cf. Wikipedia “Great Famine (Ireland).

Americans already here have from time to time been fearful, even hysterical, that immigrants would take over our country and remake it.  The millions of Irish and Italians would change us to a Catholic country.  In 1854 Congress passed the “Asian Exclusion Act” aimed at the Chinese who had been brought here to work on the transcontinental railroad and who wished to stay.   The Vietnamese, the Hispanics would swamp us.  It never happened.  We are the most heterogenous country in the history of the world and also the most prosperous one.  I have read that Houston is the most heterogeneous city in the country and we are doing quite well, thank you.  We have been blessed by the enterprise of our immigrants who, however desperate, were also determined, who however fearful of death where they were, had the courage to venture great distances to this promised, and however despairing of their prospects in their mother country were hopeful of finding opportunity in ours. 

One such immigrant was an unaccompanied 16-year-old German named Friedrich Trump.  He was eight years old when his father died, leaving a widow and six children deeply in debt.  Friedrich, the youngest son, was too frail to work in the family vineyard; so, he was sent to a neighboring town to be apprenticed to a barber.  Seeing no prospects there, he managed to travel 350 miles to Bremen and there buy a steerage ticket to America. He arrived in New York harbor on October 17, 1885 and began living on the Lower East Side with an elder sister who had preceded him here.  He prospered.  His grandson Donald is now President of the United States (cf. The Houston Chronicle  6/29/18 p. A2).

As a child I went to Camp Kanuga in North Carolina.  One of the songs we sang contained the verse: “If you get to heaven before I do, then dig a hole and pull me through”.  Because it was a Church camp it would never have occurred to us to change that verse to:” If I get to heaven before you do, I’ll slam the door so you can’t get through”.  

Issues concerning immigration today are quite complex and I do not pretend to know what policies we should adopt to address them.  What I am certain of is that as Christians and as Americans, we must do whatever is necessary not make our Statue of Liberty a liar.  She stands in New York harbor facing the old world saying, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Sam Todd  July 1, 2018    St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Houston                      Deuteronomy 10:17-21  Psalm 145:1-9   Hebrews 11:8-16                 Matthew 5:43-48   1242 words