Feature

Citizen of Heaven

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We arrived in Chicago in the mid-1990s. My young family and I had left Houston after planting a church and were now venturing out by faith so I could attain a graduate degree.

Years before, my wife and I left our parents and went to Toccoa Falls (Ga.) College to pursue what we believed was a call to overseas missions. On several missions trips, God pointed out for us a cross-cultural assignment.

When we left Miami and our families behind to obey the Lord and serve among the Hispanic community in Houston, it sure felt like we were headed to the mission field. Having left Houston and now driving into Chicago gave us that overwhelming feeling once again. Only the assurance of God’s presence and leading in our lives brought us peace.

We soon saw God’s provision, and the Lord assigned us to serve a church among the Hispanic community. This was the mission field God had appointed us to for now.

Two Worlds

I was born in Cuba, came to this country at age nine, and grew up in Miami. My immigrant family worked hard to make a new life in a new country. I saw my parents struggle to assimilate to this culture, raise a family, and continue to grow in their faith.

In the meantime, my siblings and I grew distant from them as we assimilated faster into our new world yet did not want to lose sight of our past and respect for our culture.

Illustration by Kenneth Crane

At times, straddling both worlds seemed impossible; however, my parents found a place where others could help us: the local church. We found a community of people there much like us. God used the church to make our assimilation and acculturation into a new society, with all its demands, a little more manageable.

Sticking Point

Now in my early 30s I found myself on the other side of the spectrum—fully integrated into this culture as a citizen, with a college education and a call to ministry. I had just transitioned out of a church plant. I was getting a master’s degree in intercultural studies and hoping the Lord was leading us to the mission field.

Much to my surprise, the mission field He directed me to at that time was planting churches among the U.S. Hispanic community. I found myself not going overseas but working amidst a mission field that had come to our shores.

Whether serving in Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, or South Florida, I saw many similarities between how I grew up and the families I served. The longer I served in the Hispanic community, the more challenging dynamics I encountered.

First, I was serving a Spanish-speaking community, but the members were from diverse countries and cultures. I had to lean on my missionary training. Second, many brought with them different political views and motives for being in this country. I was not prepared for this.

I had embraced this country as my own and vowed to contribute to it responsibly as a naturalized citizen. Here I was, grateful for the opportunity to have a new life my parents paid the cost for me to have, and now I was serving some I had led to Christ who, quite frankly, did not like this country. They were here only out of convenience.

This difference became a sticking point for me. I wanted to preach against it and alienate myself from it. Instead, I turned to the Lord and sought His wisdom.

Praise the Lord not everyone was like this. Most were grateful for the role the United States played in bringing them to faith in Christ—something they had little to no opportunity for where they had come from. Nonetheless, I had to face this dilemma in my heart.

Backyard Missions

As a graduate student in Chicago, I researched and dug deep into the roots of The Alliance. I studied the life of our founder, A. B. Simpson, and sensed some of his struggles in the constant changes in his life—changes which God used to birth something unique to the missionary endeavors of that time. Several things resonated with me:

Illustration by Kenneth Crane

Simpson developed a passion to reach lost people, even at the cost of leaving his own comfort and at a personal loss.

He had a passion and commitment to reach the unreached.

He began right where he was living.

I wanted to imitate these things. I was willing to go to the ends of the earth, but God presented an opportunity right in my own backyard.

God stretched me when serving in the Hispanic context in this country. Within my last church plant alone, we had 13 different nationalities which shared similarities but enough unique idiosyncrasies to have our own borders and differences. Yet, by cultural design and the sheer need to survive, we learned to live together. As followers of Christ, we put our disputes aside for His cause.

All I had to do to lose my effectiveness within this hybrid community was to champion my own biases. I had to die to them so I could learn to embrace others for Christ’s sake and be His instrument to reach some.

It came to a head for me when in the last church, the Lord brought a young man to us. His life was so disjointed and entangled by sin that it seemed impossible for God to do anything with him. And yet, right before our eyes, we saw God perform miracle after miracle.

One day, as is typical in any Cuban family—particularly with the first-generation Cubans—the topic of Cuba and Fidel Castro came up. To my surprise, this young man from a different country not only believed Fidel Castro had done some good things for Cubans but he also did not comprehend what our fuss was all about.

I thought the world would come to an end or at least God would send lighting from heaven to zap him. But God had a different approach. He told me to love this young man and disciple him not on the merits of being a good citizen of any country but as a citizen of heaven.

For years I walked with him and saw him grow in God’s grace as did I. He is still in that church we planted 20 years ago, walking with the Lord. (His opinions on Fidel Castro changed a little, too.)

A Higher Call

While I served God in this context, He was changing me. I grew in appreciation of this country and its place in God’s sovereign plan to impact the lives of many people displaced from their own countries. I also grew in my understanding that I am foremost a citizen of heaven as well as an alien and stranger in this world.

For many years I carried a card in my wallet that identified me as a resident alien. I was grateful to live here but also frustrated that I no longer had a country to call my own. Finally, when I swore allegiance as a naturalized citizen of the United States, I felt proud. I had a new beginning—a new lease on life. I now had privileges and responsibilities I do my best to uphold. But that resident alien card often reminds me that my enduring citizenship is of a greater place and eternal nature.

The churches we planted became communities where people from different backgrounds were accepted around the transformational grace God extends to us all through Christ. Time and time again, God challenges me to see people through His lens and what He is doing to call others to Himself. For many of us, by displacing us from our natural roots and bringing us to a new environment, He gets our attention and illumines our hearts with His love.

The last 12 years, I have served in district ministry in Florida. We have churches from many different cultural backgrounds, and the Lord continues to guide me as I lead others in this similar journey.

When tempted to side or champion a political cause, even when dear to me, I choose to focus instead on the higher and greater call in my life. I champion the God-given mandate to “declare the praises of him who called [me] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

How to Help and Not Hurt

Serving within immigrant communities, we learned some key principles that allowed us to assist them better. Here are eight of them:

Recognize that every people group has something unique to contribute to others that is godly, although it needs to be redeemed.

Although you do not check for green cards or any other paper at the door, protect the church from being a place where “deals” are made or information shared that contribute to falsifying documents, etc.

Use the church as a safe place to inform the immigrant community of laws and ways that help with their assimilation. Partner with immigration lawyers who can come and answer questions.

Although you embrace your cultural background, do not allow it to rob you of the blessings of your new citizenship you enjoy with other believers.

Develop a working file of community organizations that help new immigrants and are fair and will not rob them of their money.

Provide practical training like TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) to help them communicate.

Provide training that helps the immigrant understand the American culture.

Plan fellowship dinners and time to tell testimonies to hear and understand their stories.

For even more help and resources, visit

theimmigrationalliance.org

worldrelief.org/us-offices

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