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Longing for Home: Forced Displacement and Postures of Hospitality
Longing for Home: Forced Displacement and Postures of Hospitality
M. Jan Holton
Yale University Press, 2016
240 pp., 58.00

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Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865
Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865
S. Scott Rohrer
The University of North Carolina Press, 2014
322 pp., 40.0

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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

In the Fog

The subject was immigration, migration, by choice or by expulsion or flight, seeking refuge or perhaps simply a better job, the hope for a better life (maybe for the children and their children). So much talk about this subject is either hateful, jingoistic, blustering ("I will build a wall!") or primly unctuous, swathed in politically correct pieties and staggering banalities ("Home is especially significant because it is the place where the developing infant and then child learns to negotiate various successes and non-traumatic failures in her social world," writes M. Jan Holton in Longing for Home: Forced Displacement and Postures of Hospitality). "There's a fog," said my friend, a historian I greatly admire.

Yes, a verbal fog that obscures the messy contours of the Real rather than illuminating them. In her just-published book The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (Norton), which I'll be writing more about on another occasion, Tara Zahra claims: "A world in which individuals are compelled by poverty or persecution to seek work abroad is no more free than one in which state borders are closed and locked." Read that sentence over a couple of times and ponder it. Zahra, by the way, who is professor of East European History at the University of Chicago, received a so-called genius award from the MacArthur Foundation in 2014.

Immigrants, refugees, migrants are just like the rest of us: a little lower than the angels, but also human, all too human. They may be working in sweatshops in New York, indebted to the fixers who arranged for their passage from mainland China years ago. They may be Chinese from Taiwan or Hong Kong who in the 1980s or early '90s came to the wealthy community of San Marino, California, paying cash for a luxurious house and sending their children to the public schools, which they lavishly support: my brother would have taught some of their kids at Huntington Middle School.

My brother and I are ourselves the children of immigrants. Our father was Canadian, born and raised in British Columbia. His family's fortunes changed after the 1929 Crash. His father lost his business, took to drink, left the family behind. When World War II started, my father lied about his age to enter the Canadian army. He spent five years in the Country of War, then emigrated again, to California, where he met our mother.

She was an immigrant in a special category well known to readers of Books & Culture: an MK. Her parents, missionaries to China, were on furlough in Philadelphia when she was born in 1922. Until she was eleven years old, she lived in Shanghai. Her world consisted of three sets of people: missionaries in the compound where she lived with her family, and in China more generally; the Chinese she came into contact with in everyday life (a few of whom she got to know well); and the wildly assorted and often eccentric denizens of the expatriate community: White Russians, British, Jewish immigrants from many countries, Scandinavians, and more.

Soon after our grandparents returned to the US in the early '30s, my grandfather received a word from God: he was to set out as an itinerant evangelist. (After all, people in America needed saving just as in China.) Off he went on the Lord's work, leaving my grandma—in the midst of the Depression—to support the family, maintain the household, and take care of the children: my mom and her younger brother, my Uncle Ed. (An older half-brother, my Uncle Larry, was already in school in California.) Now and then he'd return for a bit before setting out again. Finally, as he was about to depart on another evangelistic jaunt, my grandma told him that if he left this time, he shouldn't plan on returning. And so it was. (Divorce was unthinkable, of course.)

Missionaries, and not only their kids, were immigrants as well. When my brother and I were boys in the '50s, many missionaries—friends and acquaintances of our grandma—visited our house. They had gone to Africa or South America or the South Pacific, learning new languages and new ways of life. When they returned, they were immigrants once again: "home" had changed while they were away, and so had they. Like immigrants generally, they came in every imaginable flavor, though almost none that I met fit the ugly stereotype beloved by novelists and screenwriters.

Like most of you who are reading this, my wife and I have friends who are immigrants or refugees, some of whom entered the country legally, some not. It seems obvious to me that immigrants (without papers) who have lived and worked peaceably in the US for years should be offered a fast track to citizenship. Yet I also have friends who disagree. I think they are wrong—but they don't fit the script written and endlessly reiterated by academics and immigrant/refugee advocates: they are not xenophobic haters of "the other" (though that script, alas, does have some basis in reality).

In a web-only piece for B&C in 2010, Mark Noll commended S. Scott Rohrer's book Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865 (UNC Press). "It has long been a commonplace," Mark noted, "that to understand American religious history it is essential to understand the history of immigration to the United States. From the ardently Calvinist Puritans of the 17th century through the dedicated German, Irish, etc. Catholics of the 19th century, to the Korean Presbyterians, South Asian Sikhs, and Hispanic charismatics of the 21st century, only the congenitally somnambulant could miss the many ways that immigration has worked to shape the nation's worshiping communities. Scott Rohrer's innovative study treats a related, but neglected phenomenon. By studying internal immigrations in early American history, he shows that movement from one place to another within the country was connected to the same levels of religious dynamism as have characterized immigration from abroad. His cases are Congregational migrations from Massachusetts to Connecticut in the 17th century, Scotch-Irish Presbyterian movement in many directions throughout the 18th century, Anglican migrations in Revolutionary-era Virginia and Moravian movement to North Carolina in the same era, Seventh-day Baptists leaving New Jersey and Methodists 'invading' the Ohio River Valley during the years after the Revolution, and then in the 19th century Amana colonists from New York to Iowa and Mormons from the Midwest to Utah."

Insights like this, attentive to resistant particulars, dispel the fog—or at least a little patch of it. And, praise God, there's plenty of sharp-eyed work to be found along with the fog-generating kind. This special issue of B&C, devoted to "Refugees, Migrants, Exiles, Strangers in a Strange Land … ," doesn't yield a manifesto, a policy, a plan for action. The pieces are all over the map. And—as I hardly need to tell you—the subject isn't treated comprehensively (to borrow a word that proponents of "immigration reform" like to brandish). We have more in the works, including a special section on Latinos in the US and a number of individual pieces (keep an eye out for James Calvin Schaap on the life and death of Renske De Jong Hiemstra, who came from the Netherlands to South Dakota in the 1890s). If there's a particular topic under this rubric that you'd love to see covered in our pages, let me know at jwilson@christianitytoday.com (I'd be glad to hear from you).

—John Wilson

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