Of Immigrants and Pilgrims

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
October 10, 2019


The story of God’s people in Scripture is marked by repeated emigrations and immigrations. The great father of faith, Abraham, migrated far from home to follow God’s call, even when it led him to set out “not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8) Moses took Israel on a forty-year meandering journey through hostile lands in order to be delivered from the hand of Pharaoh. After being well established in their own land, God’s people were marched across the desert once again, this time into Babylonian captivity, where the Lord told them to seek the welfare of the cities where they had been dumped. (Jeremiah 29:7)

Jesus’ personal story is one of migration from beginning to end. He is born far from home, then taken even farther away as a refugee fleeing Herod’s murderous rage, before ever setting foot in his family’s home town. His ministry is largely peripatetic, during which “home” is wherever he can find a bed and a meal. To a would-be follower he offers quite the disclaimer, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) He sends his followers to proclaim the Good News from town to town and home to home, ordering them to remain utterly dependent on hospitable hosts for their food and lodging. (Luke 10:1-12)

Most of the early apostles lived migrant lives. Paul planted many churches yet stayed with none of them for long before moving on to start yet another. Persecution uprooted the first Christians repeatedly, scattering them to new communities where they kept “turning the world upside down.” (Acts 17:5-8)

The lives of immigrants have figured prominently in world news over the past few years. They have become political footballs. Being an immigrant myself, I understand the challenges immigrants face. I am a proud native of Canada who is now a “naturalized” U.S. citizen. (What a strange use of a perfectly good word, implying that my roots are somehow “unnatural.”) Unlike most U.S. immigrants, I had no language barrier to add to the difficulty of my journey here, yet even my relatively easy pathway included years of jumping through hoops.

I am also a church immigrant. I was born and raised in a Pentecostal tradition, becoming Presbyterian only after college. That migration was in some ways more complex than moving from Canada to the U.S., as Pentecostals and Presbyterians have some very different ways of expressing and living out their faith in Jesus. Presbyterians need some Pentecostal ardor, while Pentecostals could use some Presbyterian order. Both traditions love to claim 1 Corinthians 14:40 as a core text: “…all things should be done decently and in order.” The difference is that Pentecostals focus on the first part, “all things should be done,” while Presbyterians highlight the second, “decently and in order.”

Migration from one faith community to another has helped me understand and appreciate both communities better. I am a better Presbyterian because of my Pentecostal heritage. A pilgrim life is commended by Scripture, and further commended by our own experience that exposure to new peoples and cultures helps us grow in grace, gratitude, understanding, and hospitality.

There is a spirit sweeping across our world that moves in the opposite direction, seeking shelter and isolation from those different from us rather than opening ourselves to those who may expand our horizon. It is abundantly evident in politics, where nationalism and protectionism have recently gained much popular favor in so-called “developed” nations, despite the lessons the world supposedly learned from the National Socialism movements of the early twentieth century that exterminated millions of Jews and Roma people as so much vermin. The world is once again polarized between those who welcome immigrants and those who oppose them. This can lead to desperate and devastating actions, such as the Tree of Life shooting almost exactly a year ago right in our midst, in which the gunman identified the Jewish community’s welcome of immigrants as one of the chief motivations for his deadly rampage.

We who believe we are called by God to be a community of wide welcome need beware our own inclination to judge and reject those who do not buy into our version of welcome. True welcome is marked by welcoming not only the refugee, but also those we may deem unwelcoming. If my neighbor holds me in disdain because I believe in radical welcome, my only justifiable response is to open my arms and heart wide to that neighbor. Liberality extended only to the like-minded or to those who seek our aid is no true liberality.

Pilgrims all. That’s our identity as children of Abraham and followers of Jesus. People who hold things lightly, ever on the move, relying on the generous grace of others. It’s who we are as people of faith, and despite our current wealth and secure place in “the establishment,” it’s who Presbyterians are at their best.

Your fellow-pilgrim,

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