This summer I’ve been interning at the Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee, learning how urban agriculture can positively impact communities and empower individuals. But more than that, I’ve been learning about how to grow plants. If you don’t grow many plants, I’d be willing to bet that it’s harder than you think. As I’ve been spending time in the garden I can’t help but think of how often agriculture is used in Scripture to communicate the lessons of spiritual growth that transcend culture and time. So, I wanted to share some metaphors that came to mind while I was pulling weeds.
It was transplant day in the garden. We met early in the morning, bringing trays full of the baby broccolis and cabbages. As the sun rose on the day the gardeners began to drive in, with their families and Burmese dishes in tow. They set the food they prepared on the table and approached the plant trays to receive their allotment of plants. After receiving their 10 broccolis and 10 cabbages, it was time to plant.
They went to their plots and tilled the soil there, making sure the ground was soft for the young plants. Then they dug small holes, filling them with compost so that there were plenty of nutrients. Then the plant went into the ground, as gently as possible, and dirt was filled in around it, up to the lowest leaf to give support to the fragile stem. Then dixie cups with the bottoms cut out were put around the small plants to give them extra structure during the hot days. Then the young plants were watered – a lot. They would need extra hydration if they were going to survive the move. Then some metal wiring was bent at each end of the rows and draped with a thin white netting that would protect the plants from pests and other deterrents until they were strong enough to withstand the elements.
After transplanting was complete it was time to eat lunch. The 24 gardeners and their families welcomed us to the table that was adorned with different varieties of Burmese cuisine. “Jessica, you’ll love this,” or “Jessica, you have to eat this,” or “Jessica, you’ll want more of that,” was repeated as I moved through our buffet line. Dishes with noodles and mustard leaves and kimchi and bamboo shoots filled my plate. After I was done someone handed me a piping hot glass of green tea – perfect for sitting in the midday sun after a morning of intense manual labor. I watched the gardeners all around, laughing and yelling in Burmese, while the children sat in air conditioned SUVs that were blasting Burmese pop music around the garden. We soon returned to work, but the jovial mood did not subside. All of the gardeners worked diligently in their gardens, occasionally taking a break to walk around and encourage their friends, complimenting their beautiful peppers or lettuce plants.
As I observed it all happening I couldn’t help but appreciate the great metaphor that the garden presented. These gardeners are also transplants here. They are new and fragile and vulnerable to the elements. But the work that is done at CRIT provides a safe place for these people to grow strong and be empowered in their new home. These gardens provide a haven for people who are fleeing danger. This community provides a net of protection to the most vulnerable as they enter into a brave new world.
How much more do we as Christians have a responsibility to care for these people?
Throughout the Old Testament God commands Israel to protect the foreigners in their land. The Law states, “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” in Exodus 23:9, and the same sentiment is repeated in Deuteronomy 10:19, “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33-34 expounds on this saying, “When a strangers sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Furthermore, God instructs Israel in Leviticus 19:10, “And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”
The prophets go on to speak of what it means to care for sojourners in our land. Jeremiah 22:3 says “Thus says the Lord…do no wrong or violence to the resident alien,” and Malachi 3:5 promises judgment upon “those who thrust aside the sojourner.” Ezekiel 47 says, “So you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the sojourner resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance, declares the Lord God.”
And in the New Testament God extended salvation to the nations through Jesus Christ. He eliminated the distinction between Jew and Greek, barbarian and Scythian. Christ is all, and in all, and shows no partiality.
The heart of God pursues the minority, the oppressed, the ostracized, the victimized, the traumatized. He is the eternal home of the foreigner. He commands his people to treat them with equality, show them love, bring them into community, and extend the inheritance of God with them. If the Israelites were called to share their territorial inheritance with the sojourner, how much more are we called to share our eternal inheritance of salvation with them.
As Christians living in the midst of one of history’s greatest humanitarian crises, let us not turn to hate or discrimination. The refugee crisis is not merely a political issue, but it is an opportunity for the church to react with love and hospitality to a people who for the most part do not have a relationship with Christ. May we be overcome by the cause of God to reach out to the nations, to form a protective hedge around them, and to lead them to citizenship in a kingdom that can never be shaken.