I come from a family of refugees.
My grandfather fled Germany in pre-World War I to escape the political oppression of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.
The family came after the war, sponsored by my grandfather and after losing a younger brother to malnutrition.
My father’s contribution to this country included service in World War II, where he was awarded both a silver and bronze star for bravery.
Excluding Native Americans, we are all descendants of immigrants. Many of whom were refugees.
The Pilgrims in Massachusetts, the Catholics in Maryland and the Quakers in Pennsylvania were all refugees from religious persecution in England.
The 19th century Industrial Revolution that swept Great Britain and western Europe resulted in more refugees coming to America.
They were economic refugees escaping from working 18-hour days, seven days a week, in the factories and mines while still living in poverty. They came seeking a better life by accepting the back-breaking toil of tilling a new land.
These are the people who were the founders of the U.S. Throughout our history, refugees – our ancestors – have been an integral part of the story.
The potato famine in Ireland that brought floods of Irish refugees to our shores in the mid-1800s is just one story of many. Over 2 million Jews from Eastern Europe came fleeing religious persecution in the late 1800s.
The list is long of those fleeing oppression.
These new people weren’t always welcomed. Often, they were seen as a threat to jobs. Yet, they worked hard. They would become valuable contributing members of society.
Pursuing a better education for their children was common and enabled the next generations to make even greater contributions.
We live in an era when there are more refugees in the world than at any time in history.
Tribal Karen live in camps on the Thai border after fleeing persecution by the government of Myanmar. Their children have grown up living their whole lives in those camps.
More than 500,000 Rohingya refugees languish in camps in Bangladesh fleeing genocide in Myanmar. They are now being threatened with deportation back to those atrocities because Bangladesh is too poor to keep them.
Syrians, Iraqis and others have fled wars not of their making. They now make up one third of the population of Lebanon.
We have all heard the stories of others fleeing to the European Union. Refugees fleeing wars and corruption in Africa risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Today, in the U.S., refugees from Haiti, El Salvador and other countries are here because of catastrophic natural disasters back home.
They are now being threatened with deportation even though the circumstances in their home countries haven’t changed.
Some will go back to places that have not yet recovered from the natural disaster and where government corruption makes their very survival questionable. Yet, we would send them back.
When U.S. citizens hear the stories of the lives of refugees, the response is great.
The U.S. is filled with people who generously heed the words of Jesus, “I was hungry, and you gave me food … I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me.”
Well, maybe we don’t visit, but through our churches and charities, millions have been sent in food, clothing and medical supplies to “the least of these.”
But then the hammer falls. Included in that same discourse, Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
“Not in my backyard!” is our cry. “We don’t want them here! We want the educated, the skilled, those who look like us.”
The vocal movement to change immigration laws to a merit-based system will effectively eliminate any hope for these refugees.
In 2017, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. declined significantly. Overall, our admissions vis-a-vis the number of refugees in the world fell by two-thirds.
The refugees of our history have proven that given a chance, given the opportunities this country has to offer, they will contribute in different and unique ways, and this is what has made the U.S. what it is.
More than 2,000 references in Scripture tell us how we must treat the poor and the alien in our land. All teach acceptance.
And Jesus capped those teachings with the words, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Christians today must decide. We can be satisfied to feed, clothe and send medical assistance or we can accept the whole mandate including welcoming the least of these into our country.
Richard Schweissing, a retired high school social studies teacher, is the former president of the American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains and previously served on the board of American Baptist International Ministries. He teaches U.S. citizenship to immigrants at Crossroads Baptist Church in Northglenn, Colorado, where he also chairs the local missions committee.