Extreme Hardship?

I had the opportunity to meet with a congressman
a week ago. Sitting near me
at that meeting was a woman who had
taken the morning off work in order to be
there. She had carefully prepared to tell her
life story in only three minutes, in hopes
of convincing the congressman to support
immigration reform that would improve the
lives of the more than 13 million undocumented
immigrants who live in the United
States today.

She explained that she (a US citizen)
and her husband (an undocumented immigrant)
decided to “do the right thing”
after they found out they were expecting
their first child. They, like most Americans,
thought it would be relatively easy
for him to get a visa since he was married
to a citizen. They didn’t anticipate
the need for him to return to Mexico to
file his paperwork. They didn’t foresee that
he would be there over a year while they
waited to hear back about their application.
They had no way to know that their
appeal would be denied because the US government didn’t believe his remaining in
Mexico would cause “extreme hardship” for
the family.

She explained to her congressman
that she wasn’t sure what the legal definition
of “extreme hardship” was. But she
found it extremely hard to plan yet another
birthday party for her four-year-old who
had never celebrated with her father. She
found it extremely hard to comfort a crying
child at 3 a.m. who had woken from a
dream of his daddy being home. She found
it extremely hard to support her three
kids on her own, to nurture her marriage
over the telephone, and to teach her kids
through it all that they lived in a country
that was welcoming, fair, and full of opportunity.
She found it extremely hard not
to be bitter, when “doing the right thing”
had put a border between their family for
four years–and no end in sight.

I’m not sure what “extreme hardship”
is either, but I know a few churches that
are willing to enter into it with people like
my friend. I know a few churches that are
reaching out to the stranger among them,
and doing more than offering them a hot
meal or tutoring them in their English.
There are a few people of faith I know
who are willing to name the situation
we face: we have a broken immigration
system that is causing hardship
for workers, families, our economy, and
our churches, and it is a system that
must be repaired by the people who
broke it–our lawmakers. There are a
few people of faith I know who are willing
to move beyond charity into advocacy–calling on lawmakers to do their
part to fix what they dismantled.

These people know that we cannot
be the church God calls us to be–one
that welcomes strangers, comes alongside
those who suffer, and looks more diverse
each day–when deportations, workplace
raids, and senseless application denials
are the norm. These are the people who
are being Jesus to folks like my friend: The
Jesus who was drawn to those whose “extreme
hardship” was overlooked or ignored
by society. The Jesus whose “good news”
healed their spiritual as well as their very
physical world. The Jesus who called his followers to develop new eyes to see, to embrace,
to treat as Christ himself, the most
vulnerable among us.

My friend is looking for a church. It’s
my prayer that churches like ours won’t
deny her needs, won’t fail to see her “extreme
hardship,” won’t look past her pain in
favor of easy answers. It’s my prayer that the
church will do more than the congressman
did that day. When she finished her three
minutes and reached for a Kleenex, it was
his turn to talk. “Your husband was here
illegally?” he said. “Yes, sir,” she responded.
He apparently had nothing else to say.
I think the church has much more
to say. “Speak out for those who cannot
speak, for the rights of all the destitute”
(Proverbs 8:31).

Kate Kooyman is congregational justice mobilizer for
the Christian Reformed Church, a shared position
between the Office of Social Justice and the Christian
Reformed World Relief Committee.