From Pastor Dave McMillan III
Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were once foreigners in Egypt.
— Exodus 22:21
I’ve recently returned from a Winter Pastors’ School on the campus of Stetson University in Deland, Florida. One of our three speakers was Dr. Carol Newsom a Professor of Old Testament in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Her three day lecture was entitled “We are the Refugees: Our Biblical Ancestors as Displaced Persons, Refugees and Economic Migrants.”
Over three days, she reminded us of our biblical heritage as a people who have often lived as “strangers in a foreign land.” In the book of Genesis, God calls Abram to leave his country and father’s house to go to a land that God will show him. That land, of course, was Canaan, a land already long inhabited by other peoples. In the book of Exodus, due to a famine in the land, Jacob and his family migrate to Egypt where there is work and food enough to eat. In the book of Ruth, due to famine again, Elimelech, along with his wife Naomi and sons, “live for a while in the country of Moab” in hopes of finding work and food. In the book of II Kings, King Nebuchadnezzar tears down the walls of Jerusalem sending many of the inhabitants of Judah into exile in Babylon with some Jewish communities surviving there, in what is today modern day Iraq, for centuries. In Matthew’s gospel, afraid of King Herod’s decree for all male children under the age of two, living in Bethlehem, to be put to death, Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus and flee as refugees into Egypt. The Holy Family remained there until they received word that Herod had died.
Dr. Newsom then helped to remind us of our own personal stories of dislocation. My story is part of the great Irish migration to the new world which lasted for close to a century, from 1830 to 1920. In the early 1820’s, lacking work at home, many Irish immigrated to the states to help build the Erie Canal and later the railroad going west. The largest wave of Irish immigrants came over during the Great Irish Potato Famine in 1845-1849. Many of these immigrants settled in New York City and would come to comprise a large percentage of New York’s northern regiments during the Civil War. There was another wave of Irish immigrants seeking employment opportunities and a better life for their families during the early part of the Industrial Revolution, 1880-1900. In the early twentieth century, Irish immigrants in large numbers continued to come to the new world for economic reasons and, for some, to find a husband. With many of the men in Ireland having immigrated to America for close to a century, available men at home were apparently hard to find!
My grandmother, Mary Inkster of Donegal, County Donegal, and grandfather, David McMillan of Ballymoney, County Antrim, arrived and settled separately in Philadelphia in search of work and a more hopeful future in 1916. My grandmother worked as a bank teller and grandfather in a grocery store. They met and married in Philadelphia in their late twenties and went on to have six children, including their only son, my father, David Junior.
While the descendants of most of us who were gathered at the Pastors’ School for three days had immigrated from Western Europe seeking economic opportunities, some could trace their passage to the new world back through slave ships from the Ivory Coast during the eighteenth century. Another Pastor, a Jewish convert to Christianity, could trace his passage to his grandparents who had emigrated during the Civil War in Russia in the early twentieth century to escape religious persecution. Not all of us could attest to the whereabouts of the legal documentation or the process of immigration that our forebears had followed. A few could trace their lineage through Ellis Island, while others were certain, their descendants had evaded immigration officials altogether.
Dr. Newsom’s stated purpose for her lecture was that of empathy. For various reasons there have been and always will be displaced persons: economic migrants and refugees. All of our families, at one time, have been one! Concerning the treatment of refugees and economic migrants, God through the prophets would often call Israel to remember that they too were once immigrants and refugees in a strange land. Empathy for others, especially the displaced, begins with remembering our own biblical heritage and story.
Image Credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons