“Our Immigrant Fathers”

Father’s Day sermon
Delivered at Fairlington United Methodist Church
By Jim Winkler

June 19, 2016

When I was invited to preach today I was informed the decision was made to choose a theme that is relevant and challenging this year—immigration—and asked to reflect on what our faith says about how we should view and treat those on the margins.

Well, the Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. Here are but a few passages:

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17-19)

“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of ann alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.” (Exodus 12:49)

Like everyone  in this nation who is not descended from the native people who lived here before us, I come from a family of immigrants. Although my surname, Winkler, is German, most of my family tree is English and Scots-Irish.

In my role as head of the National Council of Churches, I have the opportunity to interact with councils of churches around the world. I have learned it is now standard practice in Canadian church gatherings to acknowledge and discuss the native peoples who lived in the area where the meeting is taking place.  I think we should follow their example. In Canada, they refer to native peoples as the First Nations.

It turns out that in July 1608, just over 400 years ago, John Smith and 14 other Englishmen arrived in these parts and found a Necostin village called Nameroughquena just a few miles south of here. There were other villages around here speaking an Algonquian dialect. It is estimated there were about 500 men, women, and children in this area. They received the Englishmen in a friendly manner, but when a Captain Argall returned two years later to buy corn from them, they refused so the English burned their villages and stole their food.

I’m not sure what they would have done with the money anyway and for all we know, they may have been short of food themselves, but a pattern of hostility was established. In 1669, John Alexander purchased from Robert Howson 6000 acres extending from Hunting Creek, south of Alexandria, to about where Fort Myer is now.

So, let’s just be honest about things and acknowledge humbly and repentantly that we worship on land that was stolen from its native people. That’s not a very pleasant thing to think about–which is probably why we don’t do so very often.

About two hundred years later, my great great grandfather, Christopher Philip Winkler, came to the United States from the village of Guttenstetten in the province of Mittelfranken in the kingdom of Bavaria in what is now southern Germany. He settled in Memphis, TN where he taught music at a Catholic girls’ school during the week. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, he was the organist for Poplar Street synagogue. On Sunday mornings, he was the organist and choirmaster for St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Christopher Philip was a Lutheran from a predominantly Catholic country who married a Scots-Irish Cumberland Presbyterian. They raised their six boys as Methodists.

Although I was born and raised Methodist, I like to think Christopher Philip’s example set the stage for my current work in the ecumenical field.

During World War I, my great grandfather, Eugene Winkler, was a medical doctor in southeastern Arkansas, about 100 miles south of Memphis. Dr. Winkler was proud of his German-American heritage, but this quickly became suspect when war broke out with Germany.

Remember, it was Teddy Roosevelt (not Donald Trump) who said,

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.”

He went on to say:

“This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance.”

The local townspeople insisted Dr. Winkler raise the American flag each morning in his front yard to prove he was loyal to the United States and not to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. The duty to raise that flag fell to his teenage son, my grandfather, also named Eugene Winkler.

Now, I don’t know whether my great grandfather and grandfather felt humiliated or persecuted by this demand or not. Because my family is white, we were able to easily de-emphasize our ethnic background.

I know that quite often immigrants try extra hard to prove they are loyal to the United States. Last month, I received an award from the Islamic Society of North America for my efforts to advance Christian-Muslim understanding. At the ceremony, an Islamic Boy Scout troop brought in the flag, we said the pledge of allegiance and sang the national anthem.

But we see all around us racist and bigoted talk and assumptions made about Muslims and Hispanics, some of whom are immigrants but many of whom have been born and raised in our nation. My wife and daughter are of Mexican and Central American descent and often feel people look differently at them as they move about our daily lives.

Scripture, however, is clear on how we are to treat the foreigner and the stranger:

“You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made; you have brought your day near, the appointed time of your years has come. Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you.” (Ezekiel 22:4,7)

“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for nby doing that some have enterained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

I could cite many other verses, but I think you understand the point. Now, there’s a sad part to the story of my grandfather’s experience during WWI. Just a few years after he experienced some degree of persecution, he joined the Ku Klux Klan and visited persecution on African Americans, in particular, although I can guarantee you my grandfather, who I loved, was an equal opportunity hater of all minorities as well as Jews and Catholics.

My father, I am happy to report, did not follow in the footsteps of my grandfather. Dad grew up in Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, the Deep South, and the Southwest. He moved around because my grandfather, who worked in local Ford dealerships, fought a continuous battle with his temper and with alcohol. Most of the time alcohol and his temper won and grandpa would have to look for another job. Because good mechanics were always in demand, he found work.

The story goes that grandpa would call my grandmother to let her know he’d found a job and a place to live and tell her to bring the children. Then, on the first week they’d visit First Methodist Church, the second week they’d join, and the third week my grandmother would be elected president of the UMW.

It was my grandmother, the United Methodist Women, and the Methodist Youth Fellowship that kept my father from becoming racist and anti-immigrant. When he was in his late teens, Dad went to a camp for young Methodist leaders. His car broke down on the way so it was late when he arrived.

He was taken to his cabin and saw he would be sharing it with 3 other young men, all of whom were at an evening worship service. Since he was exhausted, dad fell asleep and when he woke up the next morning he learned he was sharing a bed with an African American for the first time in his life.

It was not just any African American. It was Rev. James Lawson, who went on to be one of the most significant leaders of the civil rights movement. Rev. Lawson was a disciple of Gandhi and taught nonviolent civil disobedience techniques to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to John Lewis—now a congressman from Georgia—and to those who participated in the sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South.

Jim Lawson had a profound impact on Dr. King, and on my father and his understanding of racial equality. This carried over not only into his ministry—he served local churches in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois for 55 years—but into the values he instilled in his children. I am and will always be grateful to my dad for raising us in such a manner.

I grew up in the church and in an anti-racist household. Don’t get me wrong. I believe if you are a white person living in this country you are a beneficiary of white privilege whether you want it or not. Therefore, although it’s impossible to avoid complicity in a racist society, you can strive to be an anti-racist. Similarly, you can live out the biblical values and do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

The National Council of Churches and its member communions, as well as Roman Catholics and many evangelicals, are united in speaking on behalf of justice for immigrants.

I have hope for our nation and for our future and I know it will require hard work and commitment from people of good will. We need to be a non-anxious people in an anxious time.

Above all, we must remain faithful to God.

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