A few years ago, God began to stir my heart in regard to what it looks like to be “pro-life.” Or, maybe I should say “holistically pro-life.” Prior to that stirring, my strong pro-life views could be neatly summed up as advocating for the unborn as well as ministering to a legion of hurting women burdened with shame over a past abortion. (My ministry actually began in 1995 when I agreed to teach a breakout for a large women’s conference ministry. The breakout was entitled “Experiencing Forgiveness After Abortion.”) Having once advocated for “choice,” I have been unapologetically pro-life since becoming a Christian in 1985 and discovering shortly thereafter that God “created my inmost being and knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13) It would take nearly a decade more for me to forgive myself and believe God had truly forgiven me. In the years that have since passed, I have shared my story of a past abortion (at the age of 17) at times in my writing and speaking ministry in order that other women who have had abortions (approximately 1 in 3 women in the U.S.) could walk in true freedom. When it comes to seeing a decline in the abortion rate, I sincerely believe one of the greatest change-agents will be the powerful and brave testimonies of women who can attest firsthand that abortion is anything but “a quick-fix” to an inconvenient problem. Women need to know the truth about abortion and if telling my story can help set one woman free from a burden of shame or cause one woman to reconsider terminating a pregnancy, it will be worth it.
Fast forward to today and the recent God-stirring over what it means to be “pro-life.” I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to rehash each and every variable that led to a seismic shift in my heart regarding what it means to be truly pro-life. However, a starting point was when I began to wrestle with the irony that protecting life within the womb was a deal-breaker for many Christians, but protecting existing lives outside the womb was not a priority of equal importance. And please know that I’ve been this Christian, so I’m stepping on my own toes, here. I guess you could say that God began to open my eyes to other vulnerable populations in need of advocacy and protection. Maybe it was the heart-breaking images of refugee children washed up on shore lines, some cradled in the arms of a desperate parent who simply wanted a chance at a new life. Or the reports of immigrant children being separated from their families at the border and held in prison-like cages. In the wake or the realization, I was left with some big questions, the most important being the question of our responsibility as Christians to extend compassion (and assistance) to those seeking asylum from dangerous, life-threatening situations.
My heart was further grieved that Christians were becoming more known for their unloving rhetoric and opposition than their loving compassion and assistance. Rather than stand on the sidelines and complain or wring my hands in despair, I decided to become a small part of the solution. I registered for a training to be a volunteer with Refugee Services of Texas at the beginning of this year. My work with refugees over the past nine months has been a life-changing experience. God has used it to remind me that every person has a story and every life matters. As God has challenged me to think outside the boundaries of my previously compartmentalized pro-life views, He continues to stir my heart with the plight of refugees and immigrants, most of which are fleeing horrendous situations related to extreme poverty, war, or religious persecution. My refugee friends have inspired me to love God more deeply and serve Him more boldly. They have taught me so much in regard to simplicity, gratitude, joy, perseverance, and courage.
Today, I can’t imagine my life without my refugee friends. I’ve grown particularly close to a family of four from Burma who came to the US in February of this past year. I am currently teaching the mother English and it is so rewarding to see her progress. One day, she surprised me with the most delicious rice dish and Burmese tea as a thank-you! Sometimes, I take one or more of my grandchildren with me and one of my greatest joys is watching them play with her children. I’ve shared in a past post that my four year-old grandson, Micah and her four year-old daughter, Lylydah chatter back and forth, each in their own language and I am convinced that they understand each other perfectly! Hearing their laughter and watching them love without hesitation or any shred of prejudice, gives me so much hope for the future.
Recently, as an extension of my work with refugees, I was invited by a group called Welcome. to be a part of a border trip to El Paso (situated along the border of Texas and Mexico). It was an honor to be among other Christian women who much like me, are in the process of expanding their pro-life views. I believe in secure borders and a legal pathway to citizenship and while there are no easy answers, I believe the current system is severely broken and in need of repair. Scripture is clear that we have a biblical mandate not to “oppress the foreigner” (Exodus 23:9); to “love the stranger/sojourner/foreigner” (Deut. 10:19); and to “treat them as native-born” (Lev. 19:34). Jesus went so far as to equate our treatment of strangers as a true mark of discipleship (Matt. 25:35). I don’t know exactly what God is calling me to do in the aftermath of what I’ve seen and heard, but this much I do know: When I was willing to open my eyes to see, and open my ears to hear, it wasn’t hard to open my heart and respond in compassion and Christ-like love. In fact, it came quite naturally.
I won’t forget the stories I heard from a Pastor Maribel Velazquez whose small church, El Elyon, took in about 70 migrants each day for several months straight when the surge of migrants showed up at the El Paso, Texas and Juarez Mexico border. She said she did not hesitate to convert their small sanctuary into a shelter filled with cots donated by the Salvation Army to accommodate the influx of migrants seeking asylum. They would be dropped off by ICE day after day and she and a small group of volunteers did their best to feed and shelter them, while helping each one connect with a family member already here in the states. They had to do so quickly before the next group arrived and they began the process all over.
Pastor Maribel gave me a tour of her church and showed me a corner of the foyer in her church that just prior to taking in the migrant families, had recently been remodeled into a coffee bar for church attenders. “I was so proud of my new coffee bar, but how could I say ‘no’ when I heard about the migrants sleeping under the border bridge due to a lack of space after they were processed?” It would have been so much easier for Pastor Maribel to have closed her eyes and carried on, business as usual, serving her small congregation and welcoming them on Sunday mornings with a trendy coffee bar in the foyer. Seeing those green cots stacked up ceiling-high in the corner of her coffee station reminded me of the real mission of the church. Would my church have said “no” to “loving the stranger?” Would yours? I hope not, but I have to wonder.
Her work with the migrants gave her insight regarding the circumstances that might cause a person (or a family) to flee the only home they have ever known and risk their lives on a perilous journey that offers no guarantees in return. She shared a story about a father fleeing with his young daughter who gang members had threatened to rape the following day if he didn’t pay them the sum of money they requested. It had happened to other families, so he knew they would follow through with their threats if he didn’t pay up. He fled that day to protect his daughter. I would sure hope my husband would do the same.
Pastor Maribel shared another story of a woman who was sobbing inconsolably on a cot in a corner of her church. She attempted to comfort her and offered to pray with her. The woman eventually opened up and shared her story, choking back her tears. Her husband was already here in the U.S. and had worked and finally saved enough money to pay a “coyote” to bring her and their baby over (they too, were facing dangerous gang activity in their country). As part of the journey, she was ushered onto a speed boat where they were packed in like sardines to cross to the next point. The coyote warned that they would be going very fast and to hang on tight because anything that went over, they wouldn’t be able to turn around and retrieve. They hit a large wave and with so many people knocking into the woman, her baby was knocked out of her arms and went overboard. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I thought about this mother, who likely, considered jumping overboard in that moment to a sure and certain death. While most of us will never have to recover from a trauma of that magnitude, let’s not forget the original trauma that led her to embark on the dangerous journey in the first place. No one in their right mind leaves the only home they’ve ever known and risks a perilous journey to reach the border of our country, unless staying in their country becomes the greater risk. Many of us have believed a false narrative about refugees and immigrants and only by daring to open our eyes and our ears will we truly understand the situation.
On the second day of the trip, we visited a portion of the border wall that separated Mexico and New Mexico. It was a surreal sight to see two women on the other side rummaging through a trash pile. Curious as to why we were there, they approached the fence and we engaged in a conversation. They shared that they were mothers, one with three children and the other with seven children and prior to the fence being built, used to cross over freely to get groceries and return back home. They expressed fears of not being able to feed their children or protect them from harm. And they thanked us for caring enough to ask about their story. Before we left, we asked if we could pray for them and they readily accepted our offer. As we reached through the metal beams of the border fence and clasped their hands and collectively bowed our heads in prayer, that ominous fence disappeared in those few moments. And it occurred to me that it could have just as easily been me on the other side of that border fence rummaging through a trash heap for scraps to feed my family and living in the ramshackle housing in the backdrop. All but for the grace of God, go each and every one of us.
Briana Strensrud, one of the organizers of the El Paso trip and the Director of Welcome. said something on our trip that I’ve been mulling over. In fact, it inspired this post.
“You cannot scripturally justify prioritizing one vulnerable population over another.”
Advocating for the unborn and “loving the stranger” are not mutually exclusive. They exist under the same “pro-life” umbrella because every person is made in the image of God and deserves to be treated as such. Not every person is called to help refugees and immigrants. Many of you are caring for other vulnerable populations by helping the poor, taking in foster children, assisting veterans, caring for the elderly, helping the homeless, and sponsoring children in other countries. There is no shortage of opportunities to be “pro-life” and advocate for the marginalized. One life is not more valuable than another and if we are to be truly “pro-life,” we must be “pro-every-life,” from the womb to the tomb. We cannot save every vulnerable person in the world, but we can open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and respond with love and compassion. Just as Jesus did.
At the end of the day, I would rather err on the side of loving too much, than not enough.
How has God been stirring your heart lately?