As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
On the first day of November, a social justice-minded colleague at work shared a “land acknowledgement statement” in our chat group: “I recognize that the land that I live and work on rests on the traditional homelands of the Native nations, including the Calusa, the Tocobaga, and the Mascogo. As a guest on these lands, I respect and honor the history, culture and work of Native people.” She also shared a website called “Native Land,” which helps identify the native lands based on given addresses. I entered my address in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the website informed me that the Peoria and Odawa tribes, among others, once lived on these lands.
Honoring Native American heritage feels differently for me as a new immigrant at this particular time in history. There have been so many false narratives about immigration used by politicians in the United States, painting immigrants in a negative light. These fear-based and exclusive claims have always been used by some modern descendants of the original white settlers, immigrants themselves. Native American heritage is a reminder of this irony of history. But it is also more than that.
It is widely known that Native American cultures share a profound respect for the land or the natural habitat. No matter what religion one practices, a deep spirituality almost always leads to a realization that human beings are only one humble community of creation. This also includes recognizing the importance of earthly stewardship and environmental responsibility. Recognizing the historical ownership of Native lands is a practice toward not only remembering the spiritual perspective regarding the natural world, but also a radical posture of rectifying the injustices and false narratives perpetuated by unsympathetic settlers.
New immigrant communities today need a narrative change. Many people consider Thanksgiving an occasion to assimilate to American greatness as they marry into the ahistorical narrative of how Native Americans got along peacefully with white settlers. The trauma and injustices are taken out from this story and discarded like turkey bones. Many assimilated into what they consider as “mainstream” American culture by adopting the same exclusionary mindset as the politicians who scapegoated immigrants for social ills.
I wish more conversations can be brought into the immigrant church community about the intersection of immigration, Christian ethics and social justice. After all, the Bible has numerous references to how to treat sojourners (e.g. Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:17-19). Welcoming the stranger was a primary test of character for God’s people. It is also central to Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35-36). Inspired by the same spiritual laws, Native Americans naturally lived out this moral imperative of hospitality.
Deeper reflection on what social justice mandates lie behind our conversations on immigration also point to a global social justice perspective on economic inequality. There are structural factors that drive people to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Human greed and capitalist expansion are common culprits for the wealth gaps between wealthy and poor nations. Our irresponsibility and extractive use of earthly resources also led to climate change and environmental displacement of human groups.
The stories of immigrants, their hopes and struggles are part of God’s story in the present world. It is a Christian duty to recognize the humanity in every individual and to debunk dehumanizing narratives that create walls among human groups. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving.”
About the Author
Mary Li Ma is a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich. She holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and now works as a research analyst for a national research center on education equity.