The Migrant in the Mirror

by Patrick Johnstone
Posted on 1st October 2016

The headlines may have calmed down for a while, but the tragedy remains. Millions of people are on the move worldwide, many of them displaced people fleeing war, violence, religious persecution, economic poverty, or political chaos.

The migrant crisis is bigger now than ever before, with some sixty million men, women, and children on the move. "We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before," said António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

And I have news for you. It's going to get worse before it gets better. Our world is full of war, poverty, terrorism, corruption, failed states, and ecological disasters, all of which uproot people and send them searching for a better life.

Some people respond to the tragedy with a shrug. Others shed an occasional tear, particularly when confronted with heartbreaking images, like photos showing infants lying facedown in the surf, dead after a long, harrowing water journey. Still others respond with anger or fear, threatening to round up the outsiders and either send them back to where they came from or lock them up and throw away the key.

Today, followers of Jesus find themselves in all three of these emotional camps. I am writing to help Christians understand the challenges our world faces and respond to these challenges in Christ-honoring ways.

Them or Us?

If you're fortunate enough to have a roof over your head and a reliable income, it's only natural for you to think of today's refugees as "those people."

But let's take a moment and look in the mirror. What do you see? When I look, I see an immigrant staring back at me.

It's easy for us to forget that our ancestors probably looked like "those people" when they made their journeys from the old countries to new lands in Europe or the "New World."

The United States is rightly called "a nation of immigrants," but even card-carrying Europeans like me need to admit that nearly all of us arrived after the last Ice Age!

I am culturally English today, but I'm the product of immigration. My Irish grandparents emigrated from poverty-stricken County Cavan to England in 1899, where there were more opportunities for a young doctor and his wife. They were not the only Johnstones to scatter across the world in those years.

Flowing in my veins is Celtic blood, Dutch blood, Viking blood - and not a drop of English blood so far as I know. My boyhood schoolmates quickly seized on my obviously Irish name, "Patrick," and teased me mercilessly, even bullying me. To them, I was one of "those people."

The migrants scrambling today to reach our borders are no different.

Immigrants and Refugees

There are so many terms being thrown around. So who's who, and what's what?

Immigrant: Someone who has relocated (for whatever reason) to a new country.

Emigrant: Same as above, only viewed from the opposite end - someone who has left for a new country. In 1933 Albert Einstein emigrated from Nazi Germany. He immigrated to the United States.

Internally displaced person (IDP): Someone who has fled their home but is still inside their country's borders. (IDPs account for two-thirds of today's 60 million on the move, in fact.)

Refugee: Someone who has left their home country to escape war, natural disaster, or the fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, or political opinion - AND has been registered as such in a receiving country.

Asylum seeker: Someone who appears to be a refugee but hasn't yet been officially evaluated.

In the years after World War II, Europeans largely welcomed the war's refugees. The same happened in the U.S. in the years after the Vietnam war. United States accepted more than a million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

But today, refugees often receive a chillier welcome.

Are Christians Really More Negative About Immigrants?

I can understand why some people fear refugees and want to "throw the bums out." But I'm surprised when Christians embrace that approach. A study in America by the Pew Research Center shows that I shouldn't be so surprised!

Pew asked four groups of people (white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, white non-Hispanic Catholics, and secular "nones," or nonreligious people) to complete this sentence with choice a or choice b:

""The growing number of newcomers from other countries ...

(a) "...threaten traditional American customs and values" or
(b) "... strengthen American society."

How did everyone respond?

White evangelical Protestants cast a landslide vote for (a), 63 percent to 32 percent. The other segments were less lopsided; in fact, the secular respondents voted for (b) by a margin of 54 percent to 39 percent.

A few years later, the Pew researchers went back with another pair of questions: "Immigrants today ... (a) are a burden because they take our jobs, housing and health care" or (b) "... strengthen our country with their hard work and talents."

Once again, white Evangelicals were firmly on the side of (a), 66 percent to 24 percent. White Catholics were nearly the same (but not Hispanic Catholics). The "unaffiliated," on the other hand, were almost the exact opposite: 26 percent for (a), 67 percent for (b).*
When I read these statistics, my heart sinks.
Are my fellow Evangelicals so hard-hearted?
Are feelings such as these caused by bedrock nastiness and spite?
Do the survey respondents not actually know any flesh-and-blood immigrants?
And do they not know that God has a few things to say about the proper treatment of immigrants in His big book, the Bible?

This article was excerpted from Serving God in a Migrant Crisis: Ministry to People on the Move by Johnstone and Merrill. It is available on Amazon or Malcolm Down Publishing.

Patrick Johnstone has informed and inspired a generation of Christian workers with his Operation World books, which have sold 2.5 million copies. He lives in England, where he continues his lifetime of service with WEC International.
Dean Merrill has written more than 40 books, including best-selling projects with Jim Cymbala and Compassion International's Wess Stafford. Dean lives in Colorado, USA.