The Stranger: Christianity and the Immigrant Story

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus shares with his disciples: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a strang­er and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”1

“I was a stranger.”

From the Old Testament to the New Testament, the Bible presents a model for how to treat “the stranger.” Based on a Christian reading, this is a model of justice: one of provision, of compassion, and of mercy. But how does the treatment of immigrants2 in the United States compare with this Christian model? By using some examples from Mexican and Latin American immigration, we will look at the contrasts between the actual treatment of immigrants in America and a biblically based Christian model of caring and welcoming the stranger.

This is primarily inspired by the commentary on “the stranger” quoted above and by Old Testament commentary on the “sojourner.” Biblical stories of the stranger and the sojourner parallel the current political and social condition of the immigrant now.

Who is the stranger? A basic excerpt of the history of Mexican (im)migration3 to the United States

In 1907, the United States passed the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which blocked Japanese emigration into the United States, leading to labor shortages. That gap was soon filled by workers brought in from countries south of the United States. When the United States entered World War I, there was again a shortage of labor, leading to an increase in U.S. demand for Mexican labor and the installation of a temporary workers program. When the United States entered World War II, the United States yet again was in need of Mexican labor, which they brought in through the institution of the Bracero Program.4 Time and time again, the foreigner was brought in to fill these labor needs.

The workers brought in following the Gentlemen’s Agreement were brought with the promise of high wages, transport and a signing bonus. But those promises often were not met or were manipulated, leaving the workers feeling tricked. Following the recruitment efforts caused by WWI, cross-border migration became a self-sustaining system. However, at the onset of the Great Depression immigrants soon became unwelcome. As a result, from 1929 to 1939, 469,000 Mexicans were forcibly expelled from the United States.4

This is only a small excerpt from the long and complex story of the immigrant in the United States, a story that is not solely limited to Mexican and Latin American immigrants.

The immigrant condition is a complex one. It is the story of a displaced and used people, a people brought in to meet needs who are then discarded once they are no longer necessary, not only cast aside and ignored, but intentionally and forcibly pushed away.

In the Bible, the issue of immigration shows up very early. In the book of Exodus, the Children of Israel (the Hebrews) arrive in Egypt as invited guests after Joseph has helped the Egyptians survive famine. But after some time, they become slaves, oppressed and exploited by Pharoah. The word “Hebrew” actually comes from the Hebrew root עבר , “avar,” which means “to cross over.” As Swarthmore College’s Professor Helen Plotkin puts it, “To the people in whose lands they sojourn, the Children of Israel are the ‘Ivri-im’ – ‘the cross-over people.’ To be a ‘Hebrew,’ you might say, is to be a border crosser, to be someone who arrives.”5

“I was a stranger”

When Jesus speaks to the disciples about the stranger His words are, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Jesus’ vision could not contrast more sharply with the history of Mexican workers in America, who were brought in, then rejected and forcibly expelled. Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Not, “I was a stranger and you took me in because you needed me; then when you decided you didn’t need me anymore, you kicked me out of your house and left me to fend for myself in the streets.” Douglas S. Massey describes this as a cycle, one that begins with active recruitment, followed by a passive acceptance, which is then followed by persecution and discrimination.6

Such actions seem one-sided–primarily founded in meeting the needs of only one group of people and ignoring the needs of the other group. The feeling of being unwelcome is only increased when on top of that immigrant workers also face episodes of racial and cultural hostility. One example is the way that the presence of the Latinas and Latinos in the United States is sometimes perceived as a threat. Leo R. Chavez critiques this in his book The Latino Threat as he tries to define “the Latino Threat Narrative.” According to Chavez, some of the basic premises that make up the Latino Threat Narrative include the following ideas:

Latinos are a reproductive threat, altering the demographic makeup of the nation.

Latinos are unable or unwilling to learn English.

Latinos are unable or unwilling to integrate into the larger society; they live apart from the larger society, not integrating socially.

Latinos are unchanging and immutable; they are not subject to history and the transforming social forces around them; they reproduce their own cultural world.

Latinos, especially Americans of Mexican origin, are part of a conspiracy to reconquer the southwestern United States, returning the land to Mexico’s control. This is why they remain apart and unintegrated into the larger society.7

Another example of racial and cultural hostility is “The Hispanic Challenge” by Samuel P. Huntington, which was printed in Foreign Policy four years before Chavez’s book. In the article there is a short foreword under the title, which says, “The persistent flow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two people, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves–from Los Angeles to Miami–and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United states ignores this challenge at its peril.”

Latina and Latino immigrants face accusations of being cultural threats and burdens to the country. This is in opposition to the Christian model. Imagine entering a space and hearing that your very presence is a threat to a people’s way of life.

“Do not mistreat or oppress the sojourner”

God says to the Israelites, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”8 In other versions, “foreigner” is translated as alien, immigrant, sojourner, stranger. In Hebrew, the word used for “foreigner” is רגֵּ, “gare”, which according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon can be translated as “sojourner.”9

As noted earlier, the word in the Old Testament used for the Hebrews means “cross-over people,” a people who have arrived from elsewhere. In that way, the Hebrews serve as a prime example of a people who have arrived in a country different from their own.

In the book of Leviticus God says, “When a sojourner dwells with you in your land, do not oppress him. The sojourner who sojourns with you shall be like your natives. And you shall love him as yourself because you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord.”10

A Christian reading of the Bible says that the intent for the immigrant is justice–fair treatment and acknowledgement of their humanity. When God speaks of justice, often it is paired with the concept of not wronging the sojourner. And when God speak of injustices, the examples often reference the sojourner being wronged.11The book of Zechariah says, “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’”12 Following that verse the examples of justice include not oppressing the widow, the fatherless, the poor or the sojourner.

But in American society the sojourner is being oppressed in a way that is contrary these standards. In part, this is related to American society’s conception of ownership, which lends itself to certain spaces and certain rights not being shared. Immigrants in this country face many dehumanizing conditions and situations that reflect what it is to be oppressed, not what it is to be loved. For instance, often, immigrant workers are found doing some of the most difficult jobs. Further, they can find themselves in oppressive work spaces where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Patricia Zavella gives an example of this in her book I’m Neither Here nor There: “In a survey with 4,387 workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, of whom 70 percent were migrants and 39 percent undocumented, researchers found widespread abuses such as ignoring the minimum wage, denial of overtime or breaks, illegal deductions, unpaid hours, or serious injuries.”13 When we picture the workspace for the average American, working under such conditions would be unimaginable.

The use of terms such as “illegal” and “alien” create language that criminalizes and dehumanizes immigrants of certain citizenship statuses. It wasn’t until recently that the use of the term “illegal immigrant” was officially dropped by the Associated Press, stating that the word “illegal” should not be used to describe a person.14

There is a history of border control efforts that not only reflect this culture of criminalization, but are also violations of human rights. Some examples are Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Safeguard or Operation Rio Grande, operations which tried to make it difficult for unauthorized migrants to cross and pushed them to more dangerous locations.15 According to Jorge A. Vargas, “[Operation Gatekeeper] … flagrantly violates international human rights because the policy was deliberately formulated to maximize the physical risks of Mexican migrant workers, thereby ensuring that hundreds of them would die.”16

Families also face personal struggles, as children and parents are continually split apart due to deportations. La Santa Cecilia, a band from Los Angeles, California, touches heavily on this issue in their song “Ice El Hielo.” The song paired with a music video addresses the effects of U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and deportation.

El hielo anda suelto por esas calles

Nunca se sabe cuando nos va a tocar

Lloran, los niños lloran a la salida

Lloran al ver que no llegará mamá

Uno se queda aquí

Otro se queda allá

Eso pasa por salir a trabajar


ICE is on the loose out on the streets

You never know when your number’s up

Cry, Children cry when they get out

They cry when mom’s not coming to pick them up

Some of us stay here

Others stay there

That happens for going out to find work.17

These excerpts from the lives of immigrants are filled with exploitation and hurt. They illustrate a treatment of the foreigner that is the direct opposite of the vision of justice that comes out of a Christian reading of the Bible, which calls to not oppress the sojourner.

Additionally, the Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development found that immigration is primarily caused by economic need. In 1993, the United States passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA was, in part, born from an effort to limit the flow of immigration through the vehicle of an open trade system, bringing Mexico into a free trade agreement with Canada and the United States. Instead, NAFTA led to the importation of cheaper goods into Mexico, causing many to lose their jobs, only further increasing poverty and lack of employment. The solution? Migrate. Through NAFTA, U.S. policy lent itself to the uprooting and displacement of Mexican workers.18

A Christian reading understands the Bible’s picture of justice as one in which we do not oppress the sojourner or the poor. When the poor are being exploited to the point where they must leave their home in search of provision, only to find a place of further oppression, it is clear that such a vision is not being fulfilled.

Moving toward the Christian Model: the political and the personal

To clearly define an oppressor and an oppressed oversimplifies this complex issue into a more basic dichotomy than it really is. The point is not to assign blame. Instead, the primary call is to recognize and to serve. The Christian model has two aspects: to not oppress the sojourner and to welcome the stranger.

To not oppress the sojourner requires recognizing oppression and exploitation, as well as their origins and their results in all their non-black-and-white complexities. And also, through that, to recognize where the hurt lies. It means to not solely identify the systemic issue, but to just as importantly pay attention to the effects this has on the more basic and raw human and emotional level.

But there is more: It is also necessary to welcome the stranger, and this means to actively serve – to identify the needs and meet them together. This requires listening and an open sharing of resources.

It is not one fight or the other that make up a Christian understanding of God’s vision, it’s both concepts together: to not only fight oppression on the structural level, but also to respond to its most personal effects.

An illustration

The book of Leviticus says, “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”19

In a culture strongly defined by consumerism, this is a very important issue. We live in a culture where we have more than enough, and often, we take more than enough. Sometimes we find ourselves consuming freely, not always considering what it may look like to leave things for others. We just take as much as we can. We reap the field right up to its edge.

If according to a Christian reading we are supposed to leave some of our crop in order to make intentional space to serve and provide for the stranger and the oppressed, the question becomes, what is our crop?

It takes a certain level of self-awareness to be able to take on that issue. It’s a self-awareness that requires an understanding of where you stand in terms of the resources available to you, and where you stand in relation to the community around you.

However, even this idea is challenging. ‘Leave whatever is on the outskirts of your fields for the sojourner or the poor.’ It seems to create an image of the sojourner or the poor as only getting what’s left at the end. In a sense, the “leftovers.” That, in itself, seems to create a power structure that is in some way alienating.

The key thing to remember is that it’s not just about the structural changes. It’s about using the structures as spaces to move forward. When implemented soundly, structures are not intended to be spaces of oppression; they are intended to be spaces of progress.

There is a section in the book of Ruth, which tells of Ruth, a Moabite widow, who arrives in Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi around the time of the harvest. Ruth asks for permission to pick the leftover grain in the fields and then goes on to glean in the fields. Upon seeing what Ruth is doing, Boaz, the owner of the field, reacts.

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.”20

Boaz not only recognized Ruth’s practical needs for physical sustenance. He also recognized where she was coming from and understood her personal background. He made an intentional effort to learn about Ruth.21 Boaz recognized the difficulty of what Ruth was doing and what she had left behind, and his following actions were shaped by an understanding of those things.

It is not only about setting up a system where we ensure people are provided for. It is also about taking a step toward understanding and community through these institutions and what we have to offer. And through that, it becomes a process of moving forward together.

A complex process

And so through a Christian reading we recognize that the move toward justice for the immigrant, the sojourner, or the stranger is maybe not as simple as we would like it to be. It is not simply one fight or the other. It’s a mixture of the personal, the political, and the structural, and the way that all those complement one another.

The Christian viewpoint does not necessarily tell us how to solve all these problems. However, it does tell us how we are expected to treat each other as human beings, and that is a powerful first step.

It is a call for empathy and humanization–a concept that is central to the ministry of Jesus.

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This quote comes from the Gospels, which are based in the ministry of Jesus. When we stop and look at the story of Jesus, we see an understanding of what it means to be a stranger. Jesus–the son of God–came from the realms of heaven to reside in earth, a place that was not His own. And through this we see both sides of this story. Jesus entered into this world and was welcomed by many of His followers. However, He also experienced what it meant to be unwelcomed, enduring maltreatment and ultimately facing crucifixion.

A God of empathy. A God who understands the struggle, and even placed Himself in the midst of it. And a God who encourages all people to do the same.

Closing thoughts: a personal reflection

During the fall semester, through the help of a class called “Mexican Pennsylvania: the Making of a Transnational Community,” I worked alongside my classmate Ximena Violante in a community in south Philadelphia to teach guitar classes in Spanish. The community and our class was primarily made up of Latino/a immigrants or members of immigrant families. Their experiences and their lives felt like extreme contrasts to the lives we carried out at Swarthmore. Both Ximena and I come from Mexican immigrant backgrounds (thus my personal interest and focus in Mexican immigration), but even with that background, the continual switching between these two hugely different communities–the one in south Philadelphia and the one in Swarthmore–was very challenging.

When our guitar class came to an end, as a culminating project, Ximena and I made a music video in response to what we had learned through the class and through our experiences with our students. In the process of writing the song we interviewed our students, and one of the interview questions was to define the American dream. The answer that stuck with both of us the most was when one of our students told us, “El sueño americano es un despertar.” In translation, “The American dream is an awakening.”

It’s an awakening. A realization that the opportunities that were dreamed of turned out to be dehumanizing or even exploitative working conditions and that this space was not at all as welcoming as had been hoped.

And the realization of that awakening was tainted with a heavy sadness. A sadness that I’ve become more aware of through every one of my interactions with my students and new friends since then.

It’s forced me to wonder to what extent that sadness would still exist if perhaps, instead of entering a hostile space, immigrant workers were greeted with a caring acknowledgement of their needs. Or if they received a genuine acknowledgement of the struggle between wanting to be home with their family but also not wanting to be at home and living in a state of need.

I recognize that the causes of this painful immigrant experience are deep and span far back, and that it’s not something that can be easily fixed. A comprehensive understanding of what makes up the complex story of immigration in the United States, and not just of Mexican or Latin American immigrants, would take pages, even books, worth of writing.

However, I also recognize that I am a part of a community, and that within that community, there are sojourners or strangers or foreigners or visitors, and that God has a vision for the treatment of such people. And I also recognize that at times I have also fallen under that category.

We all play a role in a community, whether it be our home community, the community at Swarthmore, or another community outside of the two. We may not all be intended to closely partake in the fight for immigrant rights. But it is still important that we recognize where in our individual communities strangers or sojourners may not be getting the treatment they deserve then take on these issues with the necessary empathy and compassion.

In early April tens of thousands of people went to Washington D.C. for a rally pushing for more comprehensive immigration reform in response to a proposal put out by a group of senators earlier this year.

I had the opportunity, along with five other Swarthmore students, to attend this rally alongside a group from south Philadelphia through the community organization Juntos. Upon meeting with the group in Philadelphia I was able to see some of my old friends and guitar students. Then, when we arrived in D.C. we were able to march together, standing side by side before the White House.

However, during the trip they also looked out for my own personal needs: they made sure I was well-fed and that I could catch the bus back to Swarthmore in time. It was at that point that I realized how much I now feel like a part of this community; now, I can walk into this community and run into friends and people who I know will take care of me. It was the essence of God’s vision being lived out. In having come into this community months earlier as a stranger and seeing very clearly how I’ve been welcomed, I see them living out the very thing that is being denied to them. I have been able to experience a community that does not receive the treatment that they deserve, and instead faces a space that can at times be unwelcoming and exploitative. Yet regardless of what has been denied to them, they have treated me with the care, love and respect that all people should be treated with. This is an example that we all can learn from. This served as a reminder for me of the way these relationships should be, a reminder that together we can learn to love those we may not know or understand, a reminder to always leave a chair open at the table, and in that way, seek to live out God’s vision for humanity.



1 Matthew 25:34-46 (NRSV)

2 Although immigration is not the only example of these biblical concepts, it will be the area I will focus on. In our case, an “immigrant” will be someone from a foreign country residing in the United States.

3 This brief history relates issues both of migration and immigration.

4 “The Past and Future of Mexico-U.S. Migration” by Douglas S. Massey, epilogue to the book Beyond la Frontera: The History

of Mexico-U.S. Migration, a collection of essays examining the transnational and historical impact of migratory trends as they

developed in Mexico and the U.S compiled by Mark Overmyer-Velázquez.

5 Manuscript of talk on immigration delivered in 2008.

6 Overmyer-Velázquez, p. 251.

7 Chavez, p. 51.

8 Exodus 22:21 (NIV).

9 Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 158.

10 Leviticus 19:33-34 (translation my own).

11 Some other examples include Jeremiah 7:5-6, Jeremiah 22:3, and Ezekiel 22:6-7 (NIV).

12 Zechariah 7:9 (NIV).

13 “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities,” is research by Annette

Bernhardt, Ruth Milkman, Nik Theordore, Douglas Heckathorn, Mirabai Auer, James DeFilippis, Ana Luz GonzaÅLlez, Victor Narro, Jason Perelshteyn, Diana Polson and Michael Spiller as cited by Zavella in the chapter “The Working Poor,” p. 90.


15 Zavella, p. 34. Includes references to The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border by Timothy J. Dunn and Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary by Joseph Nevins.

16 Quoted by Kevin R. Johnston in “Open Borders” then quoted by Zavella in the chapter “Crossings,” p. 34.


18 “Displaced, Unequal and Criminalized: Fighting for the Rights of Migrants in the United States” by David Bacon, pp. 7-9.

19 Leviticus 23:22 (ESV).

20 Ruth 2:8-11 (NRSV).

21 “Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’” Ruth 2:5 (NRSV).


Yared is a Latin American Studies special major from Santa Maria, CA. She previously wanted to special major in adventuring.

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