Wednesday night several of us from Trinity Lutheran Church went to a screening of “The Stranger,” a new documentary produced by the Evangelical Immigration Table. So no, it is not based on Albert Camus’ The Stranger, nor is it a remake of Orson Welles’ 1946 film.
How the film came to Nampa: For several years Trinity has been hosting Good News Community Church, a vibrant Romanian Assemblies of God congregation (there are other descriptors but those are the important ones for this post). Pastor Dan Mangeac and a parishioner recently attended a gathering in Washington, D.C. of the Evangelical Immigration Table. When Dan inquired about showing the film at Trinity I was enthusiastic but finally encouraged him to speak with my friend Reverent Karen Hunter at Grace Episcopal Church in Nampa. Grace shepherds a Hispanic ministry at Farmway Village, just outside of Caldwell, and so it seemed natural for Karen, Dan, and their congregations to collaborate in bringing “The Stranger” to Nampa.
Together in the same room: I had seen the trailer ahead of time so I knew a little of what to expect. A film about immigration produced by Evangelicals would be different than a film on the same topic produced by the ELCA. But that’s okay, maybe even great. I firmly believe that for those of us who are willing, immigration is one of the few justice issues (the other perhaps being the environment) where Evangelicals and Mainline Christians can successfully partner. Working together will give us a more powerful voice. It could also be a beautiful witness to the world that Christians can work together.
The film itself: The first part of “The Stranger” weaves together interviews with Evangelical pastors, lay people, and scholars who articulate the brokenness of our immigration system. They point to both scripture and their own encounters with immigrants, each one sounding a clarion call to the church that we have to work for change–as Christians this is not negotiable. The producers included the testimony of a man whose view on immigration had drastically changed as he got to know immigrants and as he studied scripture more. I appreciated this testimony because although I talk passionately about the Spirit’s ability to transform communities and individuals, it is sometimes difficult to admit that the Spirit transformed me. Who wants to admit they needed transformation? Scripture quotes, from both the New and Old Testaments, came in and out of the screen, sometimes silently and sometimes read aloud.
Then the film transitioned into narrative form. The first story was about Mexican immigrants. “That was the saddest story,” said the ten-year-old girl next to me when the film ended. Yes indeed. This was the story most of us picture when we think about undocumented immigrants. It was a story of hope, then sorrow, then desperation; the story of a mother who tried to follow the rules and the injustices she suffered. This was followed by the story of a Chinese family, beginning with the father who had come over undocumented on a boat. This story seemed to be leading towards a happy ending, the daughter got a full ride to college, but ended sadly; again a story of a family trying to work within the rules but failing because of an out-of-date and an impossible process. The final story was of a white family from South Africa. The father was working for the United States government and everything seemed to be just fine, until it wasn’t. Of the three vignettes this one was the craziest–the most creative story teller couldn’t make up the story this family told us, which was of course the point. This family had everything–employment, letters from government officials, English as the first language, and white skin. After working with lawyers, former employers, and officials everything seemed to be leading towards success, until one random person in a U.S. embassy reversed a decision. At the time of the filming things had turned around and the father was granted a special Visa. He said when they had added up the financial cost (money spent and lost wages) it was easily $250,000, which of course the two other families in the film did not have. The 40 minute documentary finished by addressing the economics of immigration. Here the producers moved away from scripture and interviewed business owners.
The panel and discussion: It was fun to be in a room with Episcopalians, Assemblies of God, Lutherans, and others. Our language of faith is different. Mainliners know that our convictions are grounded in reading scripture, especially the four gospels, but we talk about immigration being a justice issue (and we often assume everyone knows what we mean when we use the word “justice.”) The Evangelicals quote scripture and talk about hearts changing. But we all agree that our faith is leading us to demand change and I find hope in that. Someone asked what we could do as regular citizens and the answers were good, even if expected: write to our representatives, get to know immigrants, keep learning about the issue, talk to our friends about we are learning.
Undocumented: The lawyer on the panel offered this pearl: “let’s change the language from illegal immigrants to undocumented immigrants.” I thought of the importance of semantics in the history of making outsiders insiders in this country–race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation. Words are so powerful.
To learn more about the ELCA’s stance on immigration, I invite you to read “Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform,” written in 2009.
And if you want to watch some feature films about immigration, I suggest these five, all produced around the same time: The Visitor, Sweet Land, Gran Torino (which includes a shout out for the Lutherans), Sugar, and Babel. Enjoy.