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Is God With Them? Why Refugees May Doubt God’s Presence

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Christians around the world for the past few weeks have been singing and proclaiming “Emmanuel!”

Isaiah the prophet declares a child shall be born and will be called Emmanuel. The birth of the child is a sign for King Ahaz, king of Judah, that God is with him and with Judah. Emmanuel is a Hebrew name which means “God is with us!” (Read Isaiah 7:10-16).

Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) lifts that promise from Isaiah. He takes it out of the realms of power and palaces and inserts it instead into his own context: one of an oppressed people ruled by a violent foreign empire (the Romans).

Matthew reinterprets that ancient holy Scripture into the story of a common carpenter and his soon-to-be young wife, who will give birth to Jesus, our Lord.

As Christians, we proclaim Jesus as God incarnate, which is a fancy, theological term meaning God in flesh and blood, with skin and bones. Or, as Matthew invites us to see Christ, Emmanuel – God is with us.

It is far from a promise of something that is to come; rather, “Emmanuel” affirms what already is.

I live in a comfortable house. My pantry and refrigerator are both filled with food (some of which will go bad before I ever get around to eating it). I will lie down in a soft, warm bed this evening.

My thoughts will be of time spent with family this week. I am surrounded by good friends. I am blessed to be a part of a loving, affirming, diverse church community. Believing God is with me is usually an easy thing for me to do.

During the season of Advent which just ended, many churches read about John the Baptizer. John was put in prison by a greedy, pleasure-seeking, paranoid king.

Matthew’s Gospel (see chapter 11) tells us that while John was detained, he had a crisis of faith. He doubted his own preaching. He questioned if he was wrong about Jesus.

If even John the Baptizer, of all people, can question whether God was with him and can doubt Jesus’ identity, why do we think we should be free from questions and doubt?

There are many things in the world that sometimes cause me to wonder if God is, in fact, with us.

I think of John detained, and then my thoughts turn to Juan, or Juanita, detained. I think of the more than 5,000 children who have been taken from their families along our southern border (the youngest was only 4 months old).

Ponder that for a moment. Just sit, silently, with it.

Add to that the reports of items seized from immigrants that were thrown away. Baby shoes. Baby food. Critical medications. Bibles. Rosaries. Tossed in the garbage. Holy Bibles and rosaries. These actions declare, “Even God cannot comfort or save you now.”

Are we the cause of God’s children questioning their faith? Rather than inspiring faith, are our actions raising doubts about God’s presence?

How many of our Spanish-speaking neighbors have traveled to our country seeking hope and refuge, while praying and trusting that God will guide and protect them?

How many of God’s children are sitting in detention cells, asking why would God lead them here only to abandon them when they reached our border?

How many are now questioning the Psalmist, who declared God was with the poor and the oppressed, and that God protects the foreigners in our midst (see Psalm 146)?

As we look into the year to come, let us who are fortunate remember to give thanks for all the ways we are aware God is with us.

But let us also commit, fellow Christians, to do three things:

  1. To pray for all who have far too many reasons to question God’s presence
  2. To seek forgiveness when we are the cause of others’ doubts
  3. To do Christ’s holy, compassionate and incarnate work of restorative justice across our land among the poor, powerless and oppressed and among foreigners, immigrants and refugees

May we be the reason others can exclaim, ¡Emanuel: Dios está con nosotros!

Bert Montgomery

Bert Montgomery pastors University Baptist Church in Starkville, Mississippi, is the author of five books, including "A Rabbi & a Preacher Go to a Pride Parade," and teaches religion and sociology courses at Mississippi State University.