As Advent approaches, I am struck yet again by the image of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and looking for room at the inn. It may have been Joseph’s ancestral town, but it was far from their home. I imagine that they arrived disoriented, concerned about the logistics of settling down and unsure of whom they could trust.
The stories are not exactly parallel, but imagining the emotions of Mary and Joseph leads me to consider the new arrivals in our own midst. Migrants who are fresh off of the train or out of the pollero’s car.
In many ways, they are the least visible of all migrants. They might not come to community organizations because they don’t yet know they exist. Yet they need that support the most. It helps to have a sister or a cousin or some relative or friend to welcome you in, but even their guidance can only mitigate the shock.
I have asked many migrants of their experience of first arriving. One told me about when he and his brother arrived to a city where neither of them knew anyone else. For months they only left their apartment to go to work. Another talked about the disorientation of everything being in English. He was overwhelmed by ordinary transactions in the store because he had not yet learned to cope with his lack of language ability. A woman described to me her adventures trying to learn the bus system and the hours she spent waiting at stops. Referring to the fear of deportation, one young man said to me, “When I came here, I felt that I gave up my liberty.”
A few weeks ago, I met a man from Guatemala who had come to DC a few days beforehand. He had been in the US before but never the East Coast. He has no money and knows no one here. He is staying in a homeless shelter and looking for jobs as a day laborer. As we started to talk, I was shocked to realize how little he knew – and how much one needs to know. I explained to him the map of DC and outlined the services that he might need such as health care clinics to treat an eye injury that he suffered while on a job. He even asked “and where do all of the Latinos live?” because he had been craving Hispanic food but hadn’t been able to figure out where his fellow countrymen might be in the country. This information might seem small and obvious. But nothing is small and obvious for a new arrival.
What if churches could receive these new arrivals in with open arms? One woman described to me that her biggest disappointment upon arriving in the US was finding that churches were not always unlocked and available for prayer. Recent arrivals often seek out churches because it is a place they can trust. What would it look like for churches to always be ready to receive those who come disoriented to a new town, much like Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem?