Embracing the Stranger: Hispanics, American Christianity, and Immigration

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 2000 a book entitled The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning was widely read by Christian instructors of foreign languages. The authors argued that the work of a foreign language instructor in a Christian setting has to necessarily go beyond the conjugation of verbs and an occasional festive nod to such visible cultural phenomena, in my case as a Spanish professor, as Mexican sarapes or Spanish paella.

The authors Smith and Carvill remind their Christian readers that there is a biblical mandate throughout the Christian Bible to show kindness to the alien and stranger and that, by incorporating this biblical mandate in our teaching, we deepen students' experience of the language they are learning by using it as an open window into the daily experiences of the speakers of that language, whether they reside in their native land or in the United States. The incorporation of hospitality into the foreign language and culture curriculum can serve as an antidote to long-standing American fears surrounding the alien, particularly the one living in one's own neighborhood. In this sense, hospitality to the stranger, as Smith and Carvill put it, is "an overarching metaphor and spiritual virtue in foreign language education." (82)

One could go a step further to say that this overarching metaphor extends to the American Christian church and its members as they participate in the current debate surrounding these most recent immigrants from over the U.S.-Mexico border.1 That there are Christians who heartily agree as well as disagree with showing kindness and generosity to the alien, will be seen as we look at the attitudes of American Christians toward the Latino immigrant.

In the United States where I was born and raised by Christian Latino immigrant parents, Christians are living the challenge of dealing with the alien, particularly the immigrant alien from just across the U.S.-Mexico border. Torn between concepts of national identity, national security, and isolationism, fueled by fear inspired by historic nativism and the more recent threat of terrorism, American Christians have become divided among those who would associate true patriotism with resistance and even hostility toward this alien and those Christians who belong to a longer tradition of providing "sanctuary" for these newcomers to the U.S. Armed with the justification of "illegality" provided by American immigration laws that no longer serve the interests either of Mexico or the U.S., certain Christians, whether clergy or laity, have made these "illegal aliens" the target of the most vitriolic and contrived accusations of labor market subterfuge, undermining of American culture, and criminality, leaving other Christians either uncertain or silent in their response to such rhetoric and yet others, determined to uphold the American Christian church's historic role as protector and provider for newly-arrived immigrants.

For Morris Dees, founder/director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (hereafter SPLC), a human rights watchdog organization, the current acrimonious tone of the debate surrounding Latino immigration is nothing less than a test of the American spirit. He states that the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that hate crimes against Latinos have risen by 35% and Center investigators have confirmed that 888 hate groups are now active in America, almost a 59% rise in their numbers since the year 2000. (2) In Attorney Dees words, "This unprecedented growth is the result of an escalating anti-immigrant fervor that is contaminating our nation's very soul." (2008, 3) He continues: "While people of good will can have different opinions about our nation's immigration policy, hatred, racism, and violence should have no place in the debate." (Ibid.)

This paper attempts to address the following questions: What are the moral implications of the current immigration debate for American Christian churches, organizations, and individuals? …

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