Reading Scripture with immigrant youth: Let the children come to me
Photo by: Peter Hershey
Moving to a new country or just across town is filled with hope and fear, ups and downs, excitement and anxiety. There are both new things to learn and pain for the things that will no longer exist.
Yet we know we are not alone in this experience, for human migration is as old as Creation. Remember Adam and Eve leaving the garden? Or Abraham? Moses and the people of Israel? Even Jesus himself was a refugee! Although factors vary, we read throughout Scripture about movement and displacement due to famine, slavery, and in some cases death.
My own family’s story is marked by migration. My Cuban mother left her homeland at twelve as her family sought to escape political turmoil and economic hardship. My Puerto Rican father was raised by his grandparents after his parents decided moving to New York might help them resolve martial differences and provide financial stability. The pain and trauma resulting from these moves still flow through my veins. Coupled with the pain and trauma came exposure to new perspectives and experiences that have made it possible to better appreciate the gifts of languages, cultures, food, skin colors, and other experiences.
By the time I was twelve, I had lived in four countries and learned three languages, and my parents made sure I cherished all of this by consistently reminding me, “This experience is one of privilege.” Despite all the travel, I felt more Puerto Rican than ever when I moved back to the island. Perhaps because being Puerto Rican inherently means you are comfortable with never really belonging, instead adopting an identity of “Puertoricanness.” We are Spanish-speaking US citizens who lack representation in Congress and who are denied self-determination. We are caught between our latinidad (ethnic and cultural attributes shared by Latin American people) and the rights granted by our US citizenship. We are free to move north, but always with our hearts rooted in the south.
While this conversation has a lot of complexities and draws out a lot of opinions, we can agree that every human being, regardless of their country of origin, is made in the image of God—and this includes the immigrant among us. As those who confess faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ, in the one who crossed socioeconomic, gender, geographical, and political boundaries, our allegiances and identity are to be informed and transformed by Jesus’ words and actions. Practically speaking, we are called to love and include all of God’s children.
Navigating immigrant realities in youth ministry
For the last two years I have been blessed with the beautiful and messy honor of learning from young people in Los Angeles where I serve as a bi-vocational youth pastor. The teenagers at our church are either first or second-generation migrants from Latin America. Our migrant realities intersect at points—we miss our grandmother’s cooking and the days where code-switching  wasn’t a thing—and diverge at others, namely, citizenship status. I’ve spent countless hours with students and their families processing the trauma that violence, poverty, abandonment, boundary-crossing, government policy, and the lack of educational resources have caused.
Imagine having no visual memories of your mother because she moved north when you were a toddler, fleeing domestic violence with the hope of achieving enough financial stability to provide you and your brother a better future. Then, add the reality of growing up in a neighborhood were violent gangs are constantly trying to recruit you, persuading you with beatings that leave you in bed for days. These real stories are from my students’ lived experiences.
I will never forget the gut-wrenching sadness that overtook me when, in a room full of strangers, one of our students was denied asylum. I was tasked with translating for the student. After a long, drawn-out legal process, my student’s pain was deemed unworthy by an officer behind a glass window. Two things became clear to me that day: (1) teenage migrants are subject to double marginalization in our society—being both young and foreign; and (2) as a pastor I needed to find a way to have a biblical conversation about immigration with young people. Immigration is not just an issue; it is an embodied reality they bring to church, to their reading of Scripture, and to their expression of worship.
Research conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute around how multicultural churches are engaging young people underscored their immigrant realities and narratives. Overwhelmingly young people were either personally affected by migration or had close family members and friends who connected them to the conversation and experience. It is a conversation young people are already navigating, and one they are asking for us to have with them. This is not a simple conversation. But as a way to be faithful to the toughest questions young people are asking, we need to start somewhere. This has been my process.
Starting with Scripture, reading it from where we live
All interpretation and application of Scripture is deeply influenced by our social location and lived experience. My biblical exegesis is influenced by my formation as a student at an evangelical seminary and my experience as a third-culture kid living in exile; but perhaps more importantly, I read and interpret God’s Word in proximity and shared communion with those who are most affected by the immigration laws enacted by the United States government. Hence, I interpret my Bible by considering and listening to the voices of my young migrant sisters and brothers in Christ.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14, NRSV)
Throughout the Bible, we see God continually calling God’s people to care for the children. At times, a passage names a specific group like orphans. Other times it speaks more broadly of how we are to protect and raise young children. In this particular passage, the term “children” moves beyond a given age group. Young people are included in this use of “children” to highlight those who lack status and so are incredibly vulnerable.Jesus is moving us to contemplate the ways in which young people are vulnerable to exploitation and marginalization. The invitation from Jesus is for those vulnerable ones to be allowed access to him.
When I read Matthew 19:13-15, I hear Jesus telling our migrant teenagers, “Come to me, for the kingdom belongs to you.” It is painful to see the adults and governmental institutions that surround our migrant teens continue to be guided by the patterns of exclusion rather than embracing the extravagant inclusion the gospel of Jesus extends.
The disciples saw the young people and their guardians as an inconvenience or threat to the mission of Jesus. Yet Christ our Lord says that it is in fact the powerless and marginalized who will inherit the kingdom.Jesus knows all too well what it means to have to move to a foreign land under the threat of death.Jesus and all of Scripture are calling us to a new vision of the world where we see children and immigrants as kingdom citizens. Jesus is calling us to adopt different attitudes and practices towards those our society seeks to exclude. May we be the type of disciples who take Jesus’ message seriously, those who speak with gentleness as we welcome all who long for God’s blessing. Especially young people who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
Three ways to read the Bible with immigrant youth
As daunting as the complexities students face may seem, as hopeless as our news feed may be, there are things we can do as leaders, pastors and parents to respond. Here are a few starters.
1. Read the Bible non-innocently
As theologian Justo González states, “Biblical history is a history beyond innocence. Its only real heroes are the God of history and history itself, which somehow continues moving forward even in spite of the failure of its great protagonists.” When I read and discuss the Bible with youth, I do not ignore or gloss over the difficult parts, although it would be much easier to do so. If teenagers are to become disciples of Christ who are able to express their faith in ways that make sense to their neighbors, they must be able to name and understand the parts of the Bible where its heroes act more like villains.
Facing the “ugly” parts guards us from having selective memory or, worse, justifying our own bad behaviors. González states, “Responsible remembrance … leads to responsible action.” For example, reading Deuteronomy 10:19, where Israel is reminded of how they are to treat sojourners (because they too where sojourners in Egypt), can lead “white North Americans to remember that they are immigrants and that the land is not theirs. [This] would lead to an attitude toward the original inhabitants of the land, and toward more recent immigrants, that the present order cannot bear.”
Youth must be able to name both their own shortcomings and our society’s brokenness if they are to participate in God’s salvation, which, according to González, is “not purely ‘spiritual’ … but is also political and social.” Our God is Lord over all spheres of life and our scriptures give us insight and direction to discuss all aspects of life, including politics and immigration policies.
2. Enter into reflective dialogue and storytelling
Young people aren’t voiceless, they just aren’t being heard. Our youth programs, church structures, and governmental policies are almost exclusively run and dictated by adults. We, the adults, often assume we know what they, the youth, need. These attitudes and ways of acting mean young people are treated as objects rather than subjects. This perpetuates their status as marginalized figures in our society.
If we are to welcome young migrant people as Jesus did, we need to foster processes and structures that humanize. Young people must become participants—co-creators—in the problems we seek to solve.As educational theorist Paulo Freire proposes, leaders must undergo a deep conversion that leaves behind our “lack of confidence in the [young] people’s ability to think, to want, and to know.” In seeking to fully include youth, we must also trust them enough to allow them to become the authors of the transformation we dream of. Not doing so would be like putting new wine in old wineskins (Mark 2:22).
As a youth pastor, I believe my most important task is to engage youth in reflective dialogue. That is, to provide young people a safe space to reflect. As critical pedagogy scholar Henry Giroux notes, “Educational spheres cannot be viewed merely as instructional sites, but must be seen as places where culture, power, and knowledge come together to produce particular identities, narratives, and social practices.” This is why many of our gatherings take the form of a dialogue rather than an information dump by the “knowledge-filled” pastor. We read our Bibles together, ask questions, share what we know, and talk about how this informs the present—politics, church, personal decisions. Young people are to be participants in their own formation, leading them to identify as Christ followers whose practices (ways of being and living) are rooted in the Christian faith. Reflective dialogue is always meant to move from theory/experience to practice/action.
Reflective dialogue has helped all of us debunk stereotypes and myths that have kept us from seeing each other has God sees us—God’s beloved children. Together we are talking, learning, and practicing how to follow in the footsteps of the scandalous inclusion Jesus modeled for us. It’s a long bumpy road towards liberation.
3. Keep listening; never stop learning
This conversation requires a commitment to listening and lifelong learning. I have been tremendously influenced and formed by several pastors, professors, and practitioners that I want to share with you. These are books, organizations, and voices that speak particularly to migration and its intersection with the church. If you are interested in exploring these topics further, I invite you to look at the resources found at the end of this piece and pick one to begin.
Each and every human being is a child of God. My prayer and hope is that those of us who profess allegiance to Christ might be more moved by God’s endless inclusionary pursuit of God’s children—including migrants—than by our fears. In reading Scripture, the immigrant youth at our church have begun to see how God identifies with their pain and suffering, includes them, and offers them liberation. My own experience as a youth pastor has taught me that in Christ our different stories, languages, and convictions make us stronger. Indeed, together we are better.
Resources for further growth
Branson, Mark Lau, and Juan Francisco Martínez. Churches, Cultures & Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2011.
Carroll R, M. Daniel. Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible. Second Edition. ed. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2013.
Carroll R, M. Daniel, Leopoldo A. Sánchez M, and Juan F. Martinez. Immigrant Neighbors among Us: Immigration Across Theological Traditions. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015.
Chao Romero, Robert. “Migration as Grace.” In the International Journal of Urban Transformation: Addressing Global Urban Immigration The Grace Option. Skyforest, CA: Urban Loft Publishers, 2016.
De La Torre, Miguel A. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. 2nd Edition Revised and Expanded. ed. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2014.
De La Torre, Miguel A. 2007. “Living on the Borders.” Ecumenical Review: A Quarterly 2007:214.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum, 2000.
González, Justo L. Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Groody, Daniel G. 2009. “Crossing the Divide: Foundations of a Theology of Migration and Refugees.” Theological Studies 70 (3): 638–67
Laidlaw, Matthew J. How We Read the Bible: 8 Ways to Engage the Bible with Our Students. Pasadena: Fuller Youth Institute, 2018.
Rojas-Flores, L., Clements, M. L., Hwang Koo, J., & London, J. (2017). Trauma and psychological distress in Latino citizen children following parental detention and deportation. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(3), 352-361.
Pastoral guides and sermon help on how to discuss immigration in your congregation and how you can help.
Here you can find the most up-to-date information on immigration law and how it affects migrants.
World Relief empowers the local church to serve the most vulnerable.
Alexia Salvatierra is an evangelical pastor with years of experience helping churches dialogue about immigration.
Code switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation, at times to adapt to different sociocultural norms. (dictionary.com)
“The term children says nothing about their age, since the term is used of children in the womb (Gen. 25:22) and children of marriageable age (Tob. 7:10-11). See Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading(London: T & T Clark, 2004), 556.
See Matthew 2:13-15.
Warren Carter, Matthew, 558
Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990),77.
Paulo Freire,Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000), 47.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 43
Henry Giroux, “Critical Pedagogy and the Responsibilities of the Public Intellectual,”America on the Edge(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 4.