by Sue Smith
The Christian understanding of human rights begins with an acknowledgement of the imago Dei – that humans are created in God’s own image and likeness.
Every person has inherent dignity and worth, and certain rights just because we’re human beings. But with rights also comes responsibility.
Consider Article 14 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: All persons have “the right to seek a safe place to live. If we are frightened of being badly treated in our own country, we have the right to run away to another country to be safe.”
But there is no responsibility placed on other countries to receive these persons.
That’s where we come in.
It’s not enough to simply say that people have the right to seek asylum or refuge. If we believe in this right and embrace the concept of imago Dei, we are compelled to speak out on behalf of a better immigration system, for receiving larger numbers of refugees, for ensuring that the most vulnerable are welcomed.
As a nation, we must provide asylum and accept refugees into our country.
In my work with migrants and refugees, I often talk with people about their experiences, both conditions in their home countries that caused them to flee and seek asylum and the actual process of seeking asylum.
Eva,* a young indigenous woman from a remote village in Central America, is energetic and spunky with an infectious smile.
In her mid-20s, rumors began to circulate in the village that she was a lesbian. Eva sought support from her evangelical church community, but she was labeled “evil” and told she was no longer welcome.
Eva’s parents were told by village leaders to “put her out.” They were reluctant to do so, but a mob came and threatened to burn her parents’ home with the entire family inside if Eva remained in the village.
Eva packed her bags and fled to the US, for both her own safety as well as that of her parents.
Eva was not safe in her own village, among her own people, or in her own country.
Jorge* is seeking asylum. He’s a quiet, respectful teen, a good student who is active in church and college bound. He helps out with his two younger, US-born siblings. His four adult siblings live in El Salvador.
Jorge’s parents tried to keep their sons safe from gangs by bringing them to the US. The two older brothers were both deported, and one was quickly recruited by a gang.
This brother’s gang involvement keeps his siblings and their families safe. “But my brother is getting too old, and now the gang wants me to replace him,” says Jorge.
Jorge is in the United States with his parents because he’s not safe in his own country.
Nina’s* story is one of being kidnapped, raped and held hostage by one of the Mexican cartels. She looks into the face of her newborn son and wonders who he is. “Maybe he’s Mexican, or Guatemalan, or Honduran,” she says. “I honestly don’t know. But I still love my baby.” Nina cannot return to Central America or Mexico; both she and her son would be murdered for having escaped.
Roberto* tells of torture by gangs and harassment by the local police. He has nightmares and relives the beatings and being shot and suffers from PTSD.
He fled his Central American country with his wife and three preschoolers just minutes before gangs burst in and destroyed his home. He was granted asylum and cannot return to his country.
Each day, those of us who work with migrants and refugees hear these stories and walk alongside people who are hoping to find a safe place to live and raise their families. There’s no question that each of these persons is created by God, in God’s own image, and are persons of dignity and worth.
Part of our responsibility as followers of Christ is to go farther than listening and responding to basic physical needs. We must acknowledge the abusive power structures and injustices that have caused others to seek asylum and refuge, and to offer hope to those who end up in our nation.
But where do we start?
First, we must put aside our fear, mistrust or even hatred for those who are different.
Migrants, refugees and immigrants are all created in the imago Dei, in God’s image, just as we are, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or language.
Second, we must become more educated and informed about migration and displacement.
This necessitates a willingness to explore the role that we collectively played (or play) in the creation of certain conditions that led (or lead) to displacement.
Third, we must become actively involved in speaking out on behalf of and alongside those who are forced to flee in order to live in safety and security.
This is also part of the imago Dei, to join with God in the work of building God’s kingdom here on earth.
And finally, get involved in the life of an immigrant, refugee or asylee.
I closely follow the work of a network of pastors working both in the US and Mexico. While the situation on the Mexican border has fallen out of the headlines, the situation still exists.
One day, I mentioned pastor Lorenzo Ortiz’s name in a conversation with Nina. She knew of him and of his compassion and witness for Christ. He’s apparently well-known on the northern Mexico migrant route for his ministry to migrants and asylum-seekers.
While life in one of the network’s migrant shelters isn’t a permanent home, it’s at least a temporary safe place to live.
Pastor Lorenzo helps with food, transportation and shelter, but what he represents to Nina and other migrants like her is hope – hope from the knowledge that someone has seen their plight, has heard their cries, and cares.
This is pastoral care. This is the imago Dei in action.
The right to seek a safe place to live is enshrined in the UDHR to which the U.S. is a signatory. Yet, there is a continuing crisis at our border, with people who still hold out hope that we’ll live up to our commitments.
Perhaps 2021 is a good time to reflect on our attitudes about migrants and refugees, and to find our place in both advocacy and action.
*names changed to protect the identity of these persons