Being & Building Followers & Friends of Jesus
“When there is reason to fear, let’s be wise.”
What made you want to write a book about the immigrant and refugee crisis?
Kent Annan: For two reasons: the lives of people who are vulnerable are at stake, and our own lives are at stake as people who will or won’t welcome them. “Isn’t putting it that way a bit extreme,” I ask myself. But no. Refugees had to flee danger at home, and the ones eligible to resettle here are only the most vulnerable 1 percent. We’re breaking up families with deportation; children were separated from their parents at the border. As a country we’re now receiving about 75 percent fewer refugees than the recent past. Immigrants and refugees are, it seems, being harassed because of how they’re talked about in the public square. Our call to love our neighbors as ourselves can get warped into a call to protect Americans as ourselves. I wrote about this topic because there are legitimate concerns to be addressed and because there so much at stake—for them and for us, as we choose whether or not to welcome. And if we choose to welcome, how do we do it well?
How do you hope your book helps readers with the questions of love verses fear?
Annan: Our fear is being stoked all the time, isn’t it? Fear is used by the news to keep us watching, by headlines so we click, and by politicians for how to vote. Don’t get me wrong—fear is a legitimate response when there is real danger! But when fear starts moving us in the opposite direction of love, we need to pause: to pray, to look at the facts, to understand why we’re scared, and to ask where God’s love leads us. So this book is, I hope, a way for us to pause together—to listen to people’s stories, to economic and security research, to Scripture. Where there is reason for fear, let’s be wise. And wherever there is opportunity, let’s ensure love casts out fear.
What about your work, both in Haiti and elsewhere, made this an important topic for you?
Annan: Living in and then going back and forth to Haiti for the past fifteen years has shaped my life in profound ways. But my first job after college was working with a refugee ministry. For two years I worked in Europe with refugees from Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Iran, Bangladesh. They became my friends. They beat me in chess. During the first snowfall they’d ever seen, the guys from Sierra Leone and I slid down the street together laughing like kindergarteners. Later I lived in Albania during the Kosovar refugee crisis to help with response. All of this has made me sensitive to the needs of people who are immigrants and refugees. I’ve been close to their pain and admire their courage. Also, my life is so much better for these friendships and all I’ve learned. All these experiences have made me care about the topic—which is vital for us as individuals and communities, as a church and country.
Why do you open the book with your son’s question, “Are we for them or against them?”
Annan: We have to make important, complex policy questions about immigration and refugee issues as a country. But the simplicity of my son’s question, right before he attacked me in one of our regular wrestling sessions, struck me as the right place to start. We follow Jesus who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” We love and seek guidance from God who says, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. . . .” In our country’s current climate, the answer to my son’s question is not a given, but it is where we have to start. Then we go through legitimate concerns, listening more deeply to their lives, and considering practical ways to help. Each chapter in the book ends with a simple practice that helps us to go deeper into being for them through reflection, prayer, and interactions with other people.
Why does thinking in terms of “that could be me” help to empathize with refugees and immigrants?
Annan: We can think, “Whew, glad that’s not me.” We can think, “That would never happen to me.” Or we can empathize and really imagine, “That could be me”—which is dangerous, in a Jesus kind of way. Because then our imaginations lead us toward loving our neighbors as ourselves. Now how I pray, vote, give, talk, act is shaped by how that could be me trying to escape bombs in Aleppo carrying my children, like one mom I talked with in Jordan who was a refugee. I hope the book helps us grow in empathy for refugees and immigrants, which is beautiful and a bit risky, like growing in love always is.
Your last book was on the topic of compassion fatigue. How does You Welcomed Me address it?
Annan: The book gives readers a chance, whatever your political leaning, to step out of any fatigue you’re feeling about this issue to ground ourselves in what is most important and life giving. For example, it helps to recognize this is actually a spiritual issue. This is God’s work in which we’re called to do our best to love our neighbors. This is a controversial issue, but I hope the book leads people into freedom and joy as they help others.
Why are the two scales you talk about—the Dehumanizing Our Neighbor Scale and the Good Samaritan Scale—so important to understanding the concept of welcoming you discuss in the book?
Annan: The bad news is we’re vulnerable, as the famous Milgram experiment in psychology and too many examples from history show us, to dehumanizing our neighbor. When we think of them as less, then we can blame them, bomb them, deport them without hesitation, separate children from parents, and not welcome them. I don’t like admitting this vulnerability about myself, but it’s true for me and all of us. But the good news is, in a similar way but opposite direction, we can grow step by step in empathy and love that leads us to deeper connection, to thoughtful helping, to friendship, and to being beautifully connected as God’s children with those who have had to flee their homes. Understanding our vulnerability (along the Dehumanizing Our Neighbor Scale) and our opportunity (along the Good Samaritan Scale) is so important for refugees and immigrants right now. Making the most of this opportunity is this book’s invitation for us personally and as a country.
Why do you think our nation and world have become a place where welcoming the stranger is so difficult?
Annan: The answer seems easy in some ways: many of us are scared of change. A lot of this is understandable, and this book takes these concerns seriously. Then media and politicians that can bring us together can also bring out the worst in us. But I want to answer your important question with two questions I hope will guide us: If God loves us, how should we then love? If God welcomes us, how should we then welcome? That’s why the book’s subtitle is, Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us. Living in the grace of God’s loving welcome changes everything about how we see refugees and immigrants. Then there are still lots of wise decisions to make and practical things we can do, which the book gets into, but now we’re on the right path of welcoming the stranger.