As immigration has become a major topic in our national conversation, we as Christians are mindful that our holy book commands us to be kind to the stranger residing among us. You shall love the stranger living among you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, says Leviticus 19 – one of many places where mercy towards the outsider is mentioned. Our Scriptures and our God call us to treat immigrants with kindness and respect – remembering that we or our ancestors were once immigrants seeking a new home. To help us understand the lives, needs, and fears of our immigrant neighbors, some members of St. Dunstan’s have been sharing their own “how I got here” stories.
My immigrant story really is my grandmother’s story. I never knew her, because she died in the mid-1930s, when my father was a teenager. But I spent most Wednesday afternoons after school with my great-aunt Frances, her sister, and she loved to talk about my grandmother to me.
My paternal grandparents emigrated from one of many German enclaves in Romania in the first decade of the 20th century, before World War I. Their entire village and the extended families of both my grandmother and grandfather immigrated to the United States together. My grandfather was possessed of a simple ambition: to own his own land, for back in Romania he never would have been allowed to do so, as he was only a peasant.
After a few years of working hard in America, he achieved his dream and bought his own dairy farm. Many members of their families and fellow villagers settled in the same area, about 60 miles north of Detroit, Michigan. My grandparents had four children, two born in Romania and two, including my dad, born in this country. They were contented on the farm. My grandfather planted roses around the house and by the barnyard fence for my grandmother, roses that still bloom by our horse paddock gate here in Wisconsin. He made the old farmhouse as pretty as possible for her, too, with wallpaper and paint and a marble-topped table in the parlor. He was one of the first farmers in the area to install an indoor bathroom in their house. All this and more to make my grandmother happy.
And she was, I think, mostly contented. But she dreaded going into town. Back then, people disliked and looked down on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially if they were Catholic. When she went into town with her children, people were unfriendly, some even going so far as to cross the street to avoid the newcomers. “Why do they hate us so?” she used to ask her sister, my great-aunt Frances, tears pouring down her face. All the older German women who knew her used to tell me after mass each Sunday that she was the sweetest, gentlest soul they ever knew, and perhaps this is the reason she never grew accustomed to the prejudice she faced. One day, she laid her head down on the table at breakfast and said, “I’m so tired,” and died.
My great-aunt Frances always maintained to me that my grandma died of a broken heart, that she wore herself out pining for something that would never be given to her, no matter how spruce her home and farm, no matter how white and starched the immaculate lace dresses she put on her three young girls for town visits. She craved respect and friendship from the people among whom she settled, and she never got that. Of course, who knows whether that unrequited dream contributed to her death? But I’m certain that she felt the sadness my great aunt told me about, for they were very close.
This seems a sad story, doesn’t it? But its ending is not sad, I hope. Before I share the end of the story, though, let me first share a few facts. My German grandparents came here during a period when this country, according to the Pew Research Center, had a very high percentage of foreign-born residents. And it’s predicted that we may break the record for that percentage within the next few years. Many things about immigration have changed since my grandparents came over from eastern Europe. Here are just a few: there are now more immigrants who are Hispanic, though that also will change in the future, Pew Research analysts predict; there are more refugees in the world than at any other time in the last seventy years except right at the end of World War II; and there are many foreign-born residents here without legal authorization who have not been able to, and will not be able to, secure that authorization. One can gain legal permission to remain here through work, family ties, or for humanitarian reasons, but those exceptions don’t apply to many of the undocumented immigrants in our country. There is, at this point, no line for a large percentage of the undocumented immigrants in this country to go stand at the end of, so that they can secure permission to stay here.
It’s true that as a society today, we don’t always agree about how to address the challenges of today’s undocumented immigrants and others who arrive in our country. But I think some things about immigrants, authorized or otherwise, remain the same as when my family emigrated here. People still want to feel welcomed to our country, and accepted. And other people still feel threatened by people with a different culture and a different language, perhaps fearful that the way of life that is theirs will change.
As for my grandmother, I believe she would be happy to see that her family has thrived in America, that all her grandchildren have college degrees while many have obtained advanced professional degrees. My grandparents valued education, as well as hard work, music, and beauty. Naturally, my grandfather, being German, also valued a bottle of good beer! We feel part of the life of this country. It took about two generations for the German Catholic community from Romania to fully integrate into the small town where I grew up, but it did. Even though we are no longer strangers to this country, however, I don’t forget my grandmother’s pain. I remember Barbara Loeffler’s story.
I think about her path as a stranger to this country, and I think about my path to this church of St. Dunstan’s. My journey, nowhere near as difficult as hers, was made easy by so many people here. And I thank you all for that, and for listening to my grandmother’s story.
We were born in South Africa. At the time we emigrated in 1985 we had lived most of our lives there. This was where we grew up, were educated, had our family and worked for more than a decade. Peter grew up Methodist, I was Anglican and after our marriage, we worshipped in both communions. South Africa was also where our parents and siblings lived. Why, then, did we leave?
South Africa was an apartheid society, with power and wealth in the hands of whites (who were less than 20% of the population). As we grew up, resistance to the status quo by the subservient black population led to draconian laws that limited where black people could live, who they could marry, what jobs they could hold, and what consequences they faced if they transgressed. To manage this, the apartheid government ramped up security forces – both police and the military. After high school, all white males were conscripted for at least two years: their primary purpose was to maintain the status quo. States of emergency that suspended normal civil liberties were imposed. The polarization between white and black increased to the point that mediation efforts appeared to be withering, and outright civil war seemed a distinct possibility. Small wonder, then, that in spite of our deep roots, we decided South Africa was not a country where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.
The next question was: Where should we go? Since both of our ancestral families were from the UK, and that is where we both went for postgraduate study and where we met, this might have seemed an obvious choice. But 2½ years in Vancouver, Canada where Peter had a post-doctoral fellowship and I did my master’s, changed our minds: we’d have happily stayed. There were personal reasons – we look back on that time as an extended honeymoon, we made life-long friends and Fraser, our son, was born there, I completed my master’s and Peter found new professional directions. But there were no jobs. After 6 years back in South Africa, a sabbatical gave us the opportunity to spend more than a year in Ithaca, NY. This was highly influential for both of us in our professional development. Once again, we’d have happily stayed. Two in-depth, decidedly positive North American experiences convinced us that this is where we could happily live. It took, however, another 5 years back in South Africa before contacts initiated in Ithaca bore fruit with a faculty position at the UW-Madison.
We are conscious that we have been extraordinarily privileged in our lives. Our decision to leave was not forced on us by deprivation, persecution, or civil war. As white English-speaking South Africans, we had access to excellent schools that opened doors to university education in South Africa and to study-abroad opportunities after graduation. These gave us a perspective on other parts of the world beyond the borders of South Africa. Our decision to come here was also a choice that we could pursue on our terms, and do so in an orderly manner: we received a job offer at the UW-Madison where they held the position open for more than a year until our green cards were issued. To get established here we were indebted with the support we received from many quarters: professional, social and spiritual.
These two questions – Why leave? and Where to go? – faced many of our own ancestors, as they do for the vast number of migrants and refugees we see in the world today. Shortly after we were married we met an Indian physicist in Canada. He told us he was a citizen of the world, and he had a newsletter to promote this concept. We signed on, and that is what we are today: citizens of the world.