Often feeling like they have the best of intentions, American Christians can tend to hold beliefs and engage in practices that keep immigrants feeling like “perpetual guests” who are inherently “less than” and whose only path toward acceptance and approval is full assimilation to their host culture’s norms.
Enter Karen Gonzalez, who immigrated to the US as a young person and learned early to become as much like white people as possible. She is humbly honest about the fact that she was good at being like white people in fact, and for a long time she tried to distance herself from her own cultural background, only publicly presenting the aspects of herself that the dominant culture prized.
Later in life, however, she began to question many things, including the narrative of the superiority of white norms, European-centric beauty standards, donor-centered storytelling about the poor in other countries, and more. Searching for answers while holding fast to Jesus and the Bible as a guide, Gonzalez has emerged as a clarion voice questioning the status who and urging believers to consider listening to previously “missing voices” from marginalized brothers and sisters in Christ.
Gonzalez describes a moment when she realized that the majority of voices that had discipled her had been white men such as John Piper and Bill Hybels. Without rejecting these influences on her life, Gonzalez began to explore—and encourages all believers to explore—the idea that we should be willing to learn from people who are not part of the dominant culture. This is crucial mindset for welcomers to adopt if they hope to form mutual, reciprocal cross-cultural friendships.
I was struck by Gonzalez’s fresh take on assimilation. She reminds readers that early European immigrants to North America named their settlements things like New England, New France, and Little Italy. Rather than wanting to leave everything behind, they wanted to hold on to what was good about their cultures and express and practice those good things in a more conducive environment. This was not done out of rejection of the host culture but of love for their motherland.
I’ve seen this in my own life as I’ve adjusted to life in Ethiopia—there are some aspects of Ethiopian culture that I love and have welcomed into my own lifestyle, some I have adopted out of necessity due to the fact that I live here, and some I have been unwilling and in cases unable to adopt because of my circumstances and background. I think these dynamics are at play in more than just myself. It’s a complex process to adjust to a new place, and every immigrant will go about it in a different way with a different timeline, and there is no end result—life, including life in a new land, is a process.
While some immigrants may seem to assimilate, Gonzalez brings out the fact that they often have simply learned to hide aspects of themselves that are different than the host culture and emphasize those areas where have managed to make themselves fit in. Rather than requiring that newcomers act as “good immigrants” that fit a stereotype we have of seamless assimilators, Gonzalez casts a vision for welcoming immigrants as full, complex image bearers who can be their whole selves in this new setting and change in the ways they can and that they choose as time goes on.
You may find yourself disturbed by Gonzalez’s questions and assertions, and I encourage you to sit with the disturbance. You may end up disagreeing with some of her ideas (I did), and you also may find your paradigm being shifted in helpful ways by some of her other ideas (I did, also). I appreciate Gonzalez’s voice and hope that many other books will be written by people with similar backgrounds, so that we as welcomers can not simply spend our time learning about immigrants, but spend even more time learning with and from them as we seek to understand and come alongside them as they adjust to life in a foreign land.
I appreciate Gonzalez’s thoughtful incorporation of biblical stories throughout the book, as well as the beautiful prayers at the end of each chapter, which do not feel “tacked-on” but instead get to the heart of the subject of each chapter in an impactful way. I also appreciate her unique outsider-insider voice—the voice of an immigrant but also the voice of someone who tried to assimilate for a long time (and did it quite “well” in a sense) but eventually realized the impossibility and inadvisability of doing so.
I am grateful to be able to recommend a growing list of books which bring to light the reality that immigrants can and should be welcomed to the table, not as beggars to be pitied but as full participants in the kingdom and kindom (family—read chapter 10 of the book to find out more about the idea of “kindom”) of God with unique insights to share and contributions to make. I’m grateful that Gonzalez made the effort to share her own insights and make her own contribution through this book.