By Louise Anne Pinette de Siller
“You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you, have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Migration is part of the human story. But moving brings challenges we expect and many that cannot be foreseen. Our lives change. There is often a need to grieve and let go, but sometimes there is no time or space to do so.
The immigrants and refugees we minister to are submerged in a vast ocean of changes as they struggle to survive and make sense of their new reality. Their needs, surprises and struggles are often the cause of their coming into our pastoral care.
We hold that we all have been created in God’s image and that the variety of races and cultures are a gift to humankind. A tremendous amount of mystery surrounds each person’s process of “becoming” who they are. This mystery abides in cultural diversity as well. Like an iceberg in the ocean, there is the tip we can see and a submerged part that is not visible.
Differences challenge us to make room for them in our hearts and our reality. Cultural change can be difficult and painful, for both those immigrating and those receiving immigrants. Our commitment to ongoing formation in the service of immigrants and refugees requires that we become more aware of unrecognized privilege and power in ministerial settings.
Many among us have sought to become culturally competent, but the attempt can be overwhelming. Because information about a culture has its limits, we as ministers are challenged to allow God’s grace to push back the dynamics of fear that “difference” can arouse. It is important to discover and face our own unconscious biases, assumptions and internal reactions.
In our preparation for ministry, we have been trained to value stories, to hear and hold them with healing reverence, to be nonjudgmental in our awareness, to respect each person’s uniqueness and their need for meaning and purpose. As we serve immigrants and refugees, the skill of cultural humility can support our efforts for respectful encounters and interactions.
As many of you know, cultural humility is based on a humble attitude that fosters a wholesome awareness of one’s cultural deficiencies. It is based on our active participation in a learning encounter, in which the person we serve guides us in discovering what helps or hinders their care and how to help them in a way that makes sense in their new context.
Many have been wounded by trauma. Trauma from fear and violence in their country of origin, trauma during their migration journey, trauma from hostility, rejection and betrayal experienced in the host country. As a result, their loneliness, fear, rejection, and vulnerability can trigger their need for our healing attention. Each story needs to be told and respectfully received, with an appreciation for their courage and strength.
The process of coming into a new cultural identity can be understood in three ways:
On one hand, isolation can result in sitting outside of the host culture, rejecting all that is related to it — refusing to learn the new language and not participating in social or political activities.
On the other hand, the desire to assimilate can result in rejecting one’s culture of origin to fully enter the host culture.
A third path is integration, seeking to learn the new country’s language and customs while maintaining one’s cultural identity. Every person and family negotiates this new space differently.
Some families can have generational divides. Children might assimilate through their school culture. They often do not want to speak the family’s language of origin and, as a result, may not be able to communicate with their grandparents, who may have chosen isolation as their means of coping. The parents who are integrating both cultures speak both languages as they adjust and accommodate in their new cultural identity.
Some challenges of transition and relocation are:
- A sense of cultural and social isolation.
- Feelings of ambiguity about themselves, the new society they are in, and those they have left behind.
- Making sense of and learning how the legal system works.
- Participation in the educational system; for example, the care and discipline of their children, communicating and cooperating with teachers and other parents, child care options.
- Understanding the health system; for example, where to go in emergencies and ongoing care, programs that offer them assistance, what is covered and is not covered by insurance.
- Recognizing and adjusting to differences related to time and punctuality.
- Working toward a new sense of belonging.
Grief can severely stress the physical and psychological capacity for health, change and adaptation. Immigrants and refugees deal with multiple issues of loss. Chaplains can encourage the process of mourning to help with the gradual letting go of the psychological attachment to things that are lost. Primary losses are identity, autonomy and authority. Secondary losses are culture, familiar roles, language, security, expectations, forms of interaction and suppositions. Mourning also helps in adapting to loss by making new choices and decisions in the new reality.
We can become an important resource for healing and adaptation as we seek to minister to this group of God’s people.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)
Louise Anne Pinette de Siller is a retired chaplain from the Santa Rosa Medical Center Hospital in San Antonio, TX.