“I just don’t know what to think about the immigration problem,” my blonde friend exclaimed in his Midwestern accent. “I mean, I get why they are coming to the US. But if we grant amnesty, then that discredits the hard work of those who came here legally. Amnesty threatens the rule of law.”
I sighed, and felt my pulse quicken as I prepared for yet another circular fight on this topic. As a progressive church leader, I was tempted to throw ideological darts about how undocumented immigrants contribute to the economy, how immigration is central to the DNA of our country, and how Jesus himself was an immigrant and a refugee. Sure, I held my self-righteous fact cards in my back pocket, and I’ve often thrown them down on social media. Yet this time, during this evening car ride through the stunning bluffs of my friend’s Wisconsin town, I refrained. I said a quick prayer, asking God how I should respond.
I then remembered another conversation I had a few years ago, this time in Shanghai. Another blonde friend of ours, German, was sharing about growing up in Germany. He told us how every male in his country from 1956 until 2011 was required either to serve in the military, or in an alternate charitable institution. Our friend had served in an elder care home for two years.
“How was it?” I asked, wincing as I anticipated a crabby complaint in response. My mind admittedly conjured up the acrid odor of urine and the squeak of forlorn wheelchairs.
“I’m grateful for my time of service,” he replied confidently. “It exposed me to a group of people I never would have met otherwise. The experience really bonded us as Germans as we learned what it meant to be a good citizen.” Suddenly the first senses I had of urine and squeaks transformed into squeezed hands and shared smiles as he described his own transformation in that home.
I was shocked to discover in myself a budding jealousy at his forced labor in an elder care facility. Yup, you just read me right. Somehow this pacifist progressive woman, who has never felt called to elder care service nor to the military, was aching for the opportunity to conscript myself into a nursing home. I didn’t want to join the nationalist war machine, but I did want to share in an American identity bigger than just selfish consumer. I sought a unifying experience where I could also bond with Americans of different ages, ethnicities, classes, and belief systems. I yearned for my US citizenship to mean something beyond just a flashy blue passport.
My mind jumped back to Wisconsin. Here I was back in this car, deciding what to say in that silence after my friend’s immigration lament.
“Instead of just focusing on immigrants,” I carefully responded, “perhaps we need to be asking ourselves what it means to be US citizens? We talk a lot about the responsibilities of being a good, law-abiding immigrant. Maybe we instead need to be asking what responsibilities each of us who are Americans have to ourselves and to others.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” my Republican friend murmured as he quoted a Democrat President. “Yeah, I can get on board with that.”
A wise man, who also happens to be my Lord and Savior, once said we should first take the log out of our own eye before we can see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye. Such self-examination is not only a challenge, but is also an invitation to see what many of us have missed all along in the immigration debate: what does it mean to be a good US citizen?