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Could Loaves and Fishes Change the Immigration Dilemma? – An ON Scripture Feature

Matthew 14:13-21, A Reflection By Verity Jones

In June, reporters for The Washington Post described the deplorable detention conditions of the border patrol station in McAllen, Texas. “The sick are separated by flimsy strips of yellow police tape from the crying babies and expectant mothers. They subsist on bologna sandwiches and tacos, with portable toilets and no showers, and their wait can last for days.” Soon after, President Obama declared a “humanitarian crisis” at the Mexico-U.S. border, citing a massive increase of undocumented children from Central America crossing the border.  Without enough resources to house and care for the tens of thousands of children while they wait for an immigration hearing, the border patrol has been overwhelmed.

When Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the station in May, he asked one young girl, “Where’s your mother?”

“I don’t have a mother,” she replied tearfully, according to Johnson. “I’m looking for my father in the United States.”  

Last week, mayors and governors around the country weighed in on the children’s plight, some hoping to offer a place for the children in their communities pending their hearings, and others vowing to stop any from arriving in their cities and states.

Michael Paulson of the New York Times reported on the overwhelming support religious leaders are giving to the cause of the immigrant children. From Catholic bishops to rabbis to the Southern Baptist Convention, people of faith are standing up for the children. Russell Moore of the SBC visited the McAllen station with a delegation of leaders.  After the visit he told Paulson, “the anger directed toward vulnerable children is deplorable and disgusting. The first thing is to make sure we understand these are not issues, these are persons. These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, not with fear.”

Immigration policy is complex indeed.  How many U.S. Congresses have failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform even though Republican and Democratic leaders acknowledge that it needs to happen? One aspect of the complexity is the competing “good” of protecting the vulnerable already in our communities and welcoming often desperate people who are fleeing harmful situations. I understand these concerns. I think most of us do.  We have limited resources and capacities.  How do we fund Head Start programs for children who already live in poverty in the U.S. and cover the bills of emergency rooms across the country that are treating undocumented immigrants who cannot pay?

While I do not think this short essay could even begin to solve all of the issues related to immigration reform, I do think people of faith can interject a different perspective into the debate — one that might begin to turn things over.

We say in my house, “it’s the loaves and fishes!”  On the occasion when we’ve shied away from inviting a neighbor in who has dropped by at dinnertime, because we only had enough food for one family, we tend to feel terrible. We were focused on our scarce resources not going far enough, rather than being focused on hospitality. When we (luckily more often) remember the loaves and fishes and wave anyone into the house who stops by close to dinnertime, we somehow end up with enough food for all and are extraordinarily happy. It really is a loaves and fishes thing!  At some level it is inexplicable, a miracle perhaps. I can’t always say how we end up with enough food for all. At another level, it demonstrates what people can do when they assume their resources are abundant rather than scarce, despite the actual number of items in the fridge.

People react to the dramatic rise in unaccompanied children arriving illegally in the U.S. from Central America.

This is what Jesus does in the parable known as, “Feeding the Five Thousand.” He and the disciples have gathered a very large crowd of people who want to hear their message of love and grace, and the coming kingdom of God.  But the area they are in is far from any town or village, so the disciples ask Jesus to send them away so they have time to find food before dark.  Jesus says, no need to do that, let’s just give what we have. He says this before he is shown that all the disciples can scrape together is five loaves of bread and two fish. Certainly not enough for 5,000. But rather than permit himself to focus on the limited food, Jesus responds from a deeper focus on hospitality.  He tells the disciples to share the food anyway. And, of course, it turns out that there is more than enough food to go around.

It’s inexplicable, even a miracle. Many bible scholars argue that this story is included in the Gospel cannon precisely to demonstrate the Jesus is capable of commanding miracles.  But this story doesn’t need to be about a miracle for it to have meaning. What matters is that Jesus’ perspective, born in hospitality, is one of abundance and not scarcity. And that perspective changes everything.  Was there a miracle? Perhaps. Or did people in the crowd who were moved by this man’s generous hospitality pull out their stashes of and start sharing? Perhaps. But it was Jesus’ commitment to hospitality and his ability to see abundance rather than scarcity that made it happen.

This doesn’t solve America’s immigration policy dilemma. We do need to protect the vulnerable folks who are already in our neighborhoods and communities. And we need to understand how immigration policy might impact our capacity as a nation to do just that. 

However, what might happen if we were to look at the two “goods” of protection and hospitality, not as competing goods in a world of scarcity, but as complimentary goods in a world of abundance?  I think we might come up with new solutions that no one has yet imagined.

I am grateful for the religious leaders around the nation who are calling elected officials from towns and cities to our nation’s capital to put on a different set of glasses and see something in this terrible situation other than scarcity.  Put on glasses of hospitality and see neighbors sharing with neighbors.  See persons instead of issues.  See children made in the image of God instead of problems. Then, let’s get to work. 

Bible Study Questions

What do you think is the economic impact of tens of millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.?  Do some research to find out.  Look up the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project on the topic of immigration. Read some newspaper articles, and search other sources.

Has your own community talked about receiving the undocumented children stuck at the border into your city? Who is leading that conversation?  What do you think about the arguments for and against?

If you began from a commitment to hospitality and tried to focus on abundance instead of scarcity, what solutions to this immigration dilemma might you imagine today? With whom are you going to share your ideas? Why? 

For Further Reading

Many Christian denominations and non-Christian institutions have offices, resources  and services dedicated to the study of immigration.  Here are a few:

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Disciples of Christ Refugee and Immigration Ministries

Local Catholic Charities immigration services

Local Jewish immigration services

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