Recently, a pastor in San Antonio was speaking publicly about his work with immigrants. Someone in the crowd asked him how he defends his work against critics, those who say that he is misguided in his compassion for those coming to the US uninvited.
Rather than argue policy and sling data, the pastor said he always begins with, “Here is what I’ve seen with my own eyes …”
This is essentially the strategy that World Relief immigrant advocate Karen González adopts in her first book, The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong. Knowing that she is writing into a world polarized by the issues she raises, González uses her autobiography and the stories of biblical immigrants to make the case for more welcoming immigration laws.
To See and Be Seen
González herself is an immigrant, from Guatemala, and she calls on that personal testimony to give a firsthand account of the fears, insecurities, and elations of the immigration process. She recalls finding dead bodies on the walk home from school, feeling lost as a non-English speaker in her first US church, and the difficult decision to leave her family home to attend college after the death of her mother.
The biographical portions of González’s story are broken up into thematic chapters following the sacraments of the Catholic church, a faith expression to which she feels some affinity, though she herself is Protestant and her parents were only nominally Catholic at most. The approach is reminiscent of Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath, which does the same with Jewish traditions, pointing out their enduring relevance for Winner’s Christian faith.
Alongside her own story, González examines the lives of other “foreigners” in the Bible: Ruth, Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30), and the Holy Family. She draws parallels between these vulnerable people and the asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants US residents encounter in their communities. In looking at these figures in light of their displaced situation, González reminds the reader that upheaval and vulnerability are common to the people of God, and they offer opportunities for God to demonstrate his nature, his concern for them.
It is Hagar, the despised servant of Sarai and mother of Ishmael, who calls Yahweh “El Roi,” or, “the God who sees.” Again and again in the book, we realize that being misunderstood and unknown is at the core of the immigrant experience, giving immigrants a special appreciation for what it means to be seen and known.
Reflecting on how she experienced God after her baptism as an evangelical Christian, González writes, “My days were long and dull, and I felt so much the outsider everywhere I went. But that event, in which I was plunged into the waters of my second baptism, made me feel seen by God.” She adds, “God saw me too—God saw a bewildered girl in a new country, walking to school with her brother.”
Seasoned with Grace
Despite the many ambitions of her book—biblical exposition, personal testimony, and immigrant advocacy—González keeps it simple. Like the pastor in San Antonio, she is not trying to argue a point but to tell a story.
Given the political spotlight on immigration in the Trump era, it is possible for readers to find more exhaustive treatments of the topic, from root causes to legal histories. This is not an immigration omnibus, not even a primer. However, González does not shy away from these issues, as she obviously has a deep understanding of the legal and social ramifications of immigration reform. She is frank and factual about the role of the US in destabilizing Guatemala and the exploitation of undocumented workers. She is honest about her own journey through various schools of thought about who does and does not belong in the US.
Like many advocates for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, González does not view mercy and justice as separable endeavors. Nor does she believe that “that’s the law” is the answer. “The United States,” she writes, “is a constitutional republic whose laws change all the time because citizens recognize that the law is not inerrant.” It’s clear where González stands. The God Who Sees is not a “both sides” kind of book.
However, perhaps because of its simplicity and her plain dealing, the book is not shrill. It offers as much grace as it does confrontation for those tempted to fear “the other” or those who see increased immigration as an existential threat to their culture. The grace she offers is not a validation of those fears but a hopeful alternative, wherein the native-born are free to welcome the foreigner.
Owning Our Part
Because Christians are accustomed to identifying with Bible characters, most of us know and believe that God is close to the oppressed. But we mainly tend to think of our own hardships when we relate to Ruth or Joseph. We are less likely to see how God might be identifying with those we are oppressing.
Many white Christians who have struggled through racial reconciliation are familiar with the stumbling block of being called “oppressor,” especially those who think of themselves as mercy-oriented. However, theologians of color and pastors of multi-ethnic churches are adept at pointing out how we can support mercy ministries while simultaneously shoring up systems (public education, criminal justice, depressed wages, poor working conditions, neighborhood segregation, etc.) that marginalize our non-white, non-citizen neighbors.
González is not nearly as confrontational on this front, even as she shows that some of the policies and rhetoric of the US are indeed oppressive toward immigrants—and even that naturalized immigrants can be tempted into believing otherwise. Here, she bravely admits the times when her own life did not reflect the values she now espouses. Given that most Americans are descended from immigrants, the temptation to “shut the door after me” affects us all, from first-generation immigrants who see themselves as “good immigrants” to the Mayflower families who see themselves as native sons.
Once we have been accepted, González argues, we worry about security. Once we’ve eaten, our concern turns to scarcity. But God is different. God is always seeing, always providing. “When we talk about immigrants and immigration,” González writes, “we are always talking about people who matter deeply to God. We are talking about people made in the image of God—people like Hagar and my abuelita.”
The other thing that keeps The God Who Sees out of polemic territory is the focus on story, on people and God’s provision for them. González is clear from the outset that she is not writing the book because of the political timeliness but because of the enduring relevance and importance of these stories. “Immigrant stories always matter,” she writes, “because immigrants are image-bearers of God.”
The national focus on immigration poses a threat and an opportunity. The threat, González reminds us, is that we will grasp at scary rhetoric and overwhelming data, losing sight of the people involved. The opportunity, one that she takes, is the chance to discover the rich stories and faith traditions that have been growing in the nutrient-rich soil of struggle.
Along the way, readers are introduced to some tenets of Latin American theology—such as “abuelita theology,” the understanding of God passed down through everyday conversations and mundane routines. She quotes extensively from female theologians and people of color. Those choices don’t come off as subversive so much as authentic. She’s not holding the immigrant story up to the plumb line of Euro-centric systematics nor is she trying to undermine any evangelical hegemony. She’s acknowledging the direct relationship between God and brown people—and the particular wisdom it yields.
González’s entire approach—the narrative, the explicit perspective, the soft blending of theology, story, and culture—is going to irritate those looking for a clean, exhaustive, unimpeachable argument for or against immigration reform. I believe, however, that this puts her on the vanguard. This book is not ammunition for the war. It is a call, instead, to lay down our arms and see what God sees.
Bekah McNeel is immigrant communities editor for Christianity Today.