I love to have company. The idea of having a house full of people, laughing and conversing, makes my heart swell. Providing hospitality and sharing my kitchen, dining room, and living room to host a gathering is among my favorite things. It all starts with a knock on the door! There is great anticipation to see who has arrived. However, I have a new perspective as a result of a January term trip in 2016.
A classmate and I were invited to a house in Austin, Texas, share a meal and conversation. The pastor, Pastor Joe, who himself is an immigrant from Central America, but currently serves a Latino congregation near Austin, Texas. prepared us for the home visit. We were given some details about the people which revealed the complexity of the living situation for this immigrant family. Three people lived in a duplex: one who is a dual citizen of El Salvador and the United States, their child, who is a natural-born citizen of the United States, and an ‘undocumented immigrant.’ I struggle using words to describe this individual who has arrived in the United States from Central America because of human-made boundaries (we call them borders). For this writing, I will use “undocumented immigrant” because it is the most fitting term. For this story, he will be referred to as Bill.
The family of three, the pastor, my classmate, and I were gathered around the family’s dining room table to enjoy a meal. We prayed and dug in. The food was absolutely delicious and the conversation was deep! All was well with our souls and stomachs as we reached for seconds. Then, things all changed.
There was a knock on the door. Time stood still. People froze. Silence rushed into the dining room. The atmosphere changed. The mood had taken an about face. There was another knock. The husband/father of the house, Bill, stood up and walked to the door. All eyes followed him. I can’t speak on behalf of the others around the table, but I immediately feared the worst, that ICE had arrived. We were going to see the ‘apprehension’ in front of our eye. This beautiful family was about to be torn apart! I was speechless and uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to respond.
Being an Iowa native, I was familiar with the ICE raids in Postville in 2008 and was faintly familiar with the difficulties that immigrants face daily. Bill had talked about being employed in the United States without having ‘legal documents.’ Bosses treated him differently, often withholding pay or only paying a portion of what was owed. Work hours were long; there are no ‘safety precautions’ for people without documents. They can be replaced easily by the next person looking for a shot at a better life. The working conditions were often treacherous. But what really got to me was the fear of driving. Every trip in the car could be the last time in the United States. Every law enforcement officer poses a threat of possible deportation.
Bill answered the door, and two gentlemen were outside waiting for him. The one on the right had a hat on with the logo of a local collegiate sports team. The other one was wearing a camouflage jacket. They said something to Bill that I couldn’t hear, and he walked outside. Seconds felt like hours. The silence was deafening. The tension was thick. A few seconds later, Bill returned–smiling! The men were repossession agents who were looking for someone and they had been given the wrong address. Bill made a joke about them taking his wife’s car, and we laughed. Bill sat back down and supper continued. Things were the same, kind of, for the rest of the evening.
The thoughts and feelings I had during those brief moments of unknowingness led me to a reality outside of my own experience and into the life of the roughly 11 million ‘undocumented immigrants.’ Nothing is simple; there is no such thing as a quick trip to the store. Every element of public life is a heightened experience, with the thought of apprehension looming. I cannot fully understand what Bill was going through when he heard the knock on the door, but I am certain that it is much different than what I feel from unexpected knocks on my door. What I do know is I have been changed; I have seen my neighbor differently. Looking at this experience through Bill’s lens has changed my life. Every knock on the door now takes me back to a dining room with friends, new and old, when the rhythm of the world was out of sync for a few moments. Thanks be to God for opportunities of transformation.