Today there are 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with 45.7 million being internally displaced, while 26.3 million being refugees that have fled to another country. The average time people spend in a refugee camp is 16 years. There are over 4.5 million that have fled Venezuela, with 3.6 million categorized as displaced. Some thousands of these have come to reside in the Dominican Republic. There are also almost two million undocumented Haitians in the D.R., which are needed for employment in agriculture, construction, and domestic help, but denied citizenship. The country also has an estimated over 200,000 stateless people, the children of undocumented immigrants from Haiti, born in the Dominican Republic. This means they have no country to which they belong, as they are not citizens of either the Dominican Republic or of Haiti. What should be the response of Christians to these people?
Throughout the Bible we see that the character of God as loving, just, merciful and compassionate is reflected in his laws. Among those laws, the greatest are, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5); and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). These two greatest laws are a summary of the Ten Commandments. Flowing out of these moral commandments come more specific laws to the nation of Israel. One of the laws concerning social justice is: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). The command is expanded slightly a bit further on, appealing to the heart, saying, “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). Then in Leviticus the command is further developed: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:33-34). We see in the book of Ruth how Boaz fulfilled this law by welcoming Ruth, the Moabite widow, to glean from his fields and provided grain for her and her mother-in-law to live.
An additional law was that the tithe of the Israelite was to go “to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 26:12). So, helping the poor, needy, and foreigner was an important part of worship to God. Thus, Paul admonished the churches of Macedonia, Achaia, and Galatia to help the poor and destitute from famine in Jerusalem by making a collection for them each Sunday (1 Cor. 16:1-3).
Fasting, too, was meaningless for seeking the LORD if one sought one’s “own pleasure and oppressed all your workers” (not paying a fair wage for being an undocumented alien), and did not “share your bread with the hungry / and bring the homeless poor into your house; / when you see the naked, to cover him.” But “if you pour yourself out for the hungry / and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, / then shall your light rise in the darkness / and your gloom be as the noonday” (Isa. 58:3, 7, 10).
Further application of this law regarding the sojourner is applied to worship in Numbers. “And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD, he shall do as you do. For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the LORD. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you” (Num. 15:14-15). So, we alike come before the LORD in the same way, because he does not make a distinction between us. We are all made in his image, and we all are sinners who need redemption through the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
When we come to the New Testament, we see that even Jesus, likely a toddler at the time, became a sojourner, or refugee, in Egypt with his parents (Matthew 2:13-15). They fled from the sword of King Herod who wanted to kill any potential competition to his throne, as the magi had come to him looking to worship the king whose star they followed. This is an example of how Jesus identified with us in our human experience and sufferings, going to Egypt where Israel suffered in slavery. Jesus became the new Israel, fulfilling what the nation had failed to keep.
Jesus reiterated the commands to love God and our neighbor as fulfillment of the law. He then further elaborated what we must do to keep this commandment with his parable of the King who judges the nations as one judges like a shepherd by separating the sheep and goats. Those on his right will inherit the kingdom. The King will say, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me…” (Matt. 25:32-36).
Of course, newly arrived refugees are the strangers among us. We have an obligation to welcome them and help provide for their needs. They arrive with many disadvantages which we can help alleviate. And in doing so, we demonstrate love. As Jesus told his disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Finally, in Hebrews we have the Lord’s admonishment, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb.13:2). Abraham was one who had invited in for a meal three strangers, who turned out to be angels, one likely a theophany of pre-incarnate Jesus (Gen. 18:1-8). That was followed by Lot inviting the two angels for hospitality into his home (Gen. 19:1-3). As Abraham had shown hospitality to Jesus, we too show hospitality to Jesus by inviting in or welcoming the stranger. As Jesus said in his parable of the King, “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:40).
So as we consider our response to the immigrant, the refugee, the undocumented, and the stateless people around us, we can only respond in love, compassion, and with justice towards those who have suffered oppression, violence, discrimination, and lack of equal rights. What the state is obligated to do according to their laws is not the same as what we as individuals and the church are called to do. Although Christians may be polarized by politics, we should be united in caring for the world by not becoming like the world.
We need to remember, as King David prayed, “For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding” (1 Chronicles 29:15). Rather than being focused on our citizenship in a nation-state, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Therefore, we must act according to love, justice, and equality. We must preach the gospel to the sojourner in word and deed. For as Paul preached concerning all peoples, “on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). So wherever someone lives as God has determined, may we help them find God as we show them mercy.