Welcoming the Stranger

Sermon by Pete Lesher

Lesher Pete_2010

My fellow immigrants: Where did you come from?

We all have an origin story—And for many of our families, it includes an immigration story.

My English ancestors arrived on these shores in about 1661 (Tilghman), 1669/70 (Goldsborough)

My German ancestors in 1727

My Irish ancestors in 1683 (Earle) and 1872 (Mulligan)


My wife’s mother arrived as recently as 1963 from Latin America.  Her grandmother became a naturalized citizen only in 1995.

Yet their family has no less claim on American identity than I have. In fact, their enthusiasm for the American idea was typical of immigrants. Like most immigrants, they knew the details of our federal system of government better than many native-born citizens. And they had a passion for it that we wish we saw more often among those who were born and raised here.

Whenever we arrived on these shores—14,000 years ago or last week—our identity as Americans is bound together by an idea—not an ethnicity.

Most nation-states for the last 500 years have been defined by ethnicity—Germany and Italy each united in the 19th century around ethnic and linguistic heritage. Czechoslovakia broke apart because its ethnic groups did not identify with one another. The modern state of Israel was created for a distinct ethnic group, and the Kurds continue to suffer because they are divided among four other countries, none of them with a Kurdish majority.

But New Yorkers and Texans and Californians and Marylanders, different as we are, are not divided by ethnicity. Rather, we are united by an idea—that we should govern ourselves through elected representatives that are accountable to the voters. That we have certain human rights—life and liberty—that are best preserved when we govern ourselves.

We uniquely come from a mix of cultures—a product of the immigrant experience. And while we have celebrations of our varied ethnic origins—the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, Mexicans on Cinco de Mayo, and several Asian ethnic groups on Chinese New Year—now we are all Americans, united in this great democratic experiment.

Our economy’s need for new immigrants has been recognized since the founding of the Republic. When Jefferson listed all of the abuses that King George heaped on the American colonists, the 7th (of 27 grievances) was:

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

Stifling immigration, in other words, was nothing less than tyranny to our Founders. It harmed our economic interests, choking off a desperately needed labor supply.

But immigrants have not always been so welcome. Even before American independence, our Founder Benjamin Franklin was alarmed at the influx of foreigners.

Franklin wrote in 1753: “Few of their children in the country learn English… The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”

Franklin was speaking of Germans. Some of this was true. The first Lesher who immigrated to America never learned English. In fact, he was illiterate in his native German language. I’ve seen his will. He couldn’t even sign his name. Yet, following the typical pattern of immigrants, a few generations later his descendants couldn’t speak German.

Other immigrant groups—Irish in the mid-19th century; Italians a few decades later; various Eastern Europeans, especially those of Jewish heritage met the same resentment. That dynamic returned in the late 20th century for Latin Americans and more recently for immigrants from the Middle East. Not that Latinos get widely welcomed now.

In addition to Franklin’s complaints—their children don’t learn English; “they” will soon outnumber “us;” “they” don’t value our democratic form of government and will one day threaten it—we have an economic argument, as well: “Too many immigrants will lower wages for everyone. They will displace hardworking Americans from jobs.”

All of these assertions are demonstrably false. For the vast majority of immigrant families, the second generation is bilingual and the third never learns the language of their grandparents. Immigrants, typically yearn for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—voting and jury service—and learn and value our system of government with the ardor of religious converts. And the depressing effect on wages rings hollow.

Here on the Eastern Shore, we bring guest workers and new immigrants to pick agricultural crops and to pick crabs. And what happens when the seafood packing house can’t get their Latino workforce? They close. This pattern has repeated itself time and time again, and in 2017, the scarcity of seafood packing labor has worsened. It’s getting tougher to find a Maryland crab cake with Maryland crabmeat—more likely you have been eating Asian crabmeat.

I witnessed the vigor and enthusiasm of an immigrant family up close. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, my family took in three teenage brothers. They spoke not a word of English. But they learned; they worked hard; they pooled resources; they lived frugally. With help from our Congressman, we gradually reunited their family in America. Today they are solid, middle class, American families whose children are as American as I am.

And what about “they” who will soon outnumber “us?” The truth of the matter is that when we help immigrant families to integrate, by the second or third generation, they are indistinguishable. “They” become “us.”

Food is one aspect of culture, often identified with nationality. I recall a Vietnamese foster child that my parents took in complaining about the food my parents served. Why couldn’t we just have normal, American food, he asked? Like what? He suggested pizza. How is it that this distinctly Italian dish became so Americanized? And yet, that is a pattern that has repeated itself over and over again. Pizza is as American as tacos or General Tso’s chicken. Thank goodness we don’t still subsist only on the English cooking that the earliest settlers brought with them.

There is also an environmental argument against immigration. With 18 million people (and rising) people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, our bay was dying. So how will we ever clean up the Bay if the population continues to grow—as it will if we welcome enough immigrants? No one will deny that the cleanup becomes more challenging with more people. Yet we are gaining ground there. And we can afford this increasingly technology-intensive cleanup because of our prosperity, a prosperity that is contingent on an adequate number of well-educated, working age immigrants. We can’t do this ourselves. We need outside help. Without young and working age immigrants, America’s aging baby boom generation, which is retiring by the day, needs more working age Americans—and immigrants—to support them.

Aside from the economic argument, or the environmental argument, or any of these other angles, what about the moral dimension?

The book of Deuteronomy (10:19) commands that “you shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” This idea is amplified in the book of Leviticus (19:34), “the alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

This message is directed at the ancient Hebrews, but it did not include an expiration date. Even if your ancestors were not aliens in Egypt, they probably were aliens somewhere, at some point in time. Is there any reason to think that these passages should not be applicable in 21st Century America? Do we have any reason to think they might not apply to us?

I am not proof-texting (taking a Biblical quotation out of context)—this verse is repeated in Exodus and elsewhere in the Torah.

No other law—as this would be interpreted by the Hebrew hearer—is repeated so many times in the Torah; it is consistent.

“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)

“The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49)

And it is translated into English variously as alien, stranger, sojourner. In every case, our role is as host. The decision to return or move on is that of the sojourner—not the host.

There are no simple solutions. No one is advocating for open borders. Leviticus addresses “the alien who resides among you”—those who are already here. We still need security—this admonition is for our treatment of the alien, the foreigner—not the thief—not the murderer—not the drug lord—not the gang member. We still need to screen those seeking to come to America—those with hostile ideologies, those likely to become a public charge. But sealing our borders does not protect us from internal dangers. The greatest threat is the temptation to abdicate our democratic values. Our founding documents assert life and liberty as fundamental human rights. We can’t abridge them.

Today, the national political discourse is at a low, and foreign immigrants are once again the subject of fears and exclusion. We face unprecedented challenges to public confidence in democratic processes and institutions. Are our elections tainted? Can we trust the voter rolls? Can we trust the accuracy of the vote count?

We have too many friends and neighbors who have lost hope in the system, who don’t find opportunity. Too many people don’t see an equal shot at prosperity—and the despair fed by this perception breeds addiction and violence. And some of it turns into resentment of whoever is the most

convenient target—Latinos, Muslims. We spend so much of our collective energy combating this addiction and violence and resentment, but we need to address the root cause. We need to restore hope. We need to restore equality of opportunity. We can’t get ahead by trying to hold others back. When some of our own neighbors can’t enjoy the blessings of liberty—equal treatment by law enforcement, equal access to jobs and housing, equal consequences for comparable misdeeds—anything that undermines human rights for some in our society undermines those rights for all. If some can be treated unfairly, why not you? That must apply to the foreigners, the immigrants in our midst, in particular.

If we return to the values articulated by our Founders, that we have basic human rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—we have to ask, are these rights secured only for U.S. citizens? No—if they are human rights, as our Declaration asserts, they belong to all alike—citizens and new immigrants. We must work against “obstructing the law of Naturalization of Foreigners” and the barriers to “their migrations hither,” as the 56 Signers of the Declaration asserted. The opposite, they claimed, is tyranny. Keeping America’s door open to immigrants keeps us true to our founding values.

My fellow immigrants—and children of immigrants, just as we have been welcomed here, we are called to be a welcoming presence to others.

—Pete Lesher

October 1, 2017


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