As a youth worker, I'm constantly amazed at the mysteriousness of adolescence. One minute, I'm baffled by the immaturity of my teens. The next, I'm blown away by their insight. Somehow, in the adolescent world, immaturity and insight regularly coexist.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when my students and I were discussing refugees and immigration in the midst of a series entitled “What can we do?” During this series, we're exploring several hot topics and then wrestling with what we as Christians can do about these issues.
This particular discussion fell on the morning after homecoming. As a result, normal adolescent immaturity was heightened by exhaustion that manifested itself in a constant stream of slap-happy giggles.
Despite this, we trudged through our discussion. Eventually I asked students to read Exodus 22:21-24:
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
After discussing what a resident alien was, I asked students why they thought God lumped together resident aliens, widows, and orphans.
Truthfully, I'm not sure how I expected this slap-happy group to respond to my question.
I know I never thought I'd hear this: “They're all people who have lost their primary identity.”
The student who said this then proceeded to explain how in the Old Testament, your identity came from place and person: Where you were from and who you were related to. According to her, the people mentioned in Exodus 22:21-24 had all lost their primary identity. Resident aliens had been stripped of their place; Widows of their husbands; And orphans of both parents.
I was blown away by this girl's insight.
Despite having spent hours studying this passage in preparation for this discussion, my exhausted, giggly students still managed to see something in it I missed.
Maybe this is why Jesus told his disciples, “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)
Perhaps kids and even teens have the ability to see things in a way that adults cannot or at the very least, remind us of things we have long forgotten.
Since hearing my student's answer to my question, I've continued pondering the central role identity plays in the Christian journey.
Consider, for a moment, baptism. I see in Jesus' baptism a revelation of both his and our identity. At his baptism, God conferred an identity to Jesus as his Son, the beloved. He does the same for us at our baptisms, bestowing upon us our most central identity as his beloved child.
If this is the case, then when it comes to refugees and immigrants, our answer to “What can we do?” cannot just include providing refugees and immigrants with medical care, food, housing, and education. It must also include restoring their identity.
To a people who have lost two of the things that most often define who we are - homes and families - the church is in a unique position to restore both. As followers of Christ, we can readily provide refugees and immigrants with a community and a place to call home.
In the process, we might even be able to remind them – and they us – that as important as these things are, our most basic identity isn't found in either community or home, but in God, who calls us beloved.