We were about halfway through Green Eggs and Ham, laboriously sounding out the words, identifying the vocabulary, looking at the pictures. The girls I sat with focused hard and leaned close to their books around the table, even though the text should have been easy for them at nine and ten years old.
But these hard-working ladies had all lived in the US for less than six months. All three of them had different first languages, different home countries, and somehow we’d all ended up in Tennessee together, of all places.
Some mornings teaching takes more energy than I have, and this was one of those mornings. We turned the page in the book and read chorally together, “I do not like them on a train. I do not like them in a box.”
The girls paused for a breath and I interjected, “Do y’all know what a train is?”
They echoed my enthusiasm when they lazily pointed at the train in the picture, checking each others’ answers with their eyes.
“Yeah, that’s right, that’s a train. Have any of you ever been on a train?”
Two of the girls shrugged and shook their heads, but one looked like she was thinking. I waited a minute to give her time to create a sentence.
“Yes, but only on top,” she said, pointing and miming riding on top of the roof of the train.
“You rode on the roof of the train?!” I exclaimed. “That’s really unsafe!”
She shrugged. “It’s how we got here- how we got to America.”
This year, she’s almost 11 years old. She communicates effectively in English and has grown at least three grade levels in reading ability in the last year. She doesn’t do her homework and sometimes she gets in trouble for calling other kids mean things, but it’s all a desperate effort to prove that she isn’t stupid.
She’s effectively trilingual now, and she hardly speaks in any language for fear of being made fun of, for fear of seeming stupid.
The day that Tennessee voted in the primaries we had off of school. The day before, she asked if I was going to vote. I told her I was, and she said, “Miss, I know it is not allowed to ask who you will vote for. But please do not vote for Donald Trump. If Donald Trump is president we will always be afraid.”
Tennessee went for Trump, which was a surprise to no one. Tennessee has also recently been in the news for trying to make the Bible its official state book. The only possible explanation for this is that there are people here in this state that I love and call home that both support Donald Trump for president and desire the Bible to be ruling law.
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t support either of those endeavors. But specifically on the issue of immigration, Trump’s policies are so far removed from a Biblical response to immigrants that there is almost no argument that could connect them.
The Bible calls us to care for the sojourner in our midst, tells stories of God’s people wandering and being welcomed, and ultimately the saga of a Christ child sojourning in a world where he was unwelcome, unloved, and murdered. He left his followers with a mandate to go into all the world and tell the story of the one who had come from a far away world to save them.
Church- the world is coming to us. They are fleeing fear and poverty and hopelessness and coming to America where they will certainly still experience those things, because they hope for a better future. How could we possibly turn them away? They are made in the image of the living God and loved infinitely by him, and they are coming here where we can show them that love.
What are we afraid of?
It’s true. It’s possible one of these hard working children will grow up and speak English and go to college and get a job, a job that a child born in America could have gotten instead of one born in El Salvador.
But she will also spend all of that time buying food, clothes, and school supplies at American stores. She’ll pay sales tax and contribute to the economy, she’ll have ideas no one else has ever had. She’ll fall in love, have babies of her own someday, and they’ll be “real” Americans.
She’s made in the image of the living God. Does any of the rest of it matter?
I told her I wasn’t voting for Trump, that I didn’t agree with what he stood for, that I knew she was afraid.
And then I told her she didn’t need to be afraid.
I told her I hoped Donald Trump wouldn’t be our next president, that a lot of people were working to make sure that didn’t happen.
“But even if he is,” I told her, “you do not have to be afraid. We know you are an American, too. We will keep you safe.”
Mr. Trump cannot build a wall by himself. He cannot find you and send you and your family back to where you came from, he does not know you and he cannot hurt you.
“You will be safe here,” I told her.
Let’s be sure she is.
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.