I sat down at the long table with my paper plate in hand. I glanced around the unadorned room and did a quick head count of the college students I’d brought with me across the U.S.-Mexico border earlier that morning. I was program assistant for a course on immigration, and we’d come south for the day to learn from Mexican organizations engaging the issue and to walk along the border from the other side. All my students were sitting down with strangers, eager to share a meal and to do their best to communicate with the men breaking bread at this Tijuana table.
We were visiting a shelter which provided temporary beds and hospitality to men who’d been deported from the United States. We had met earlier in the day with the priest who ran the facility. Most of the men sleeping and performing chores in the building’s courtyard were essentially penniless and many were very far from home. Though deposited just across the border in Tijuana, deportees were originally from all over the country. Men found a bed and a meal at this shelter while they considered their next move. There was cost and risk with both making plans to travel home or attempting to return to the U.S. under the radar.
I made shy eye contact with the man in front of me and dusted off my weak Spanish to try and start a conversation. We clumsily chatted about our families and our experiences in the States. My students held similar conversations around the shelter’s dining room.
Later, as we debriefed the visit, a small group of students shared that the man they were eating with asked where they were from. When they told him the Southern California city of our small school, his face fell. In clear English, he told them, “My wife and kids live there. And tonight you all will just drive back there.” He dropped his head.
With this short, straightforward admission, we were all impacted. As we shared a meal, we were equals, co-travelers on this road of life. But this stark reality – our freedom to travel and to return home after a day across the border – hung in the air. Meanwhile, this man waiting, separated from his loved ones, trying to gauge his next, dangerous move.
Conversations over hot plates of beans and rice have the power to impact us. When we share a meal with someone whose life experience is radically different from our own, we have an opportunity to learn about someone else’s heart, to connect over warm tortillas and lemonade with no ice.
With the holidays approaching, I know I will be sitting down at many tables over the next few weeks, passing plates among friends, coworkers, and neighbors. But my mind returns to those men in Tijuana. It has not been a welcoming season for immigrants in our country, and my husband and I have been heart-broken as we’ve recently sat with friends worried about their future or listened to those who’ve witnessed open hate in public spaces. And maybe because I tend to go to food for comfort, I’ve been thinking about our table.
The Billy Graham Center says only 1 in 10 immigrants has even been invited into the home of an American. I sit with that number and continue to be stunned by it. Even as I think of the immigrant friends that have been in our home, I recognize many of them have been invited into other U.S. homes. Who are these 9 who have never been welcomed to the table?
Of course, I suspect the disconnection is much broader in that the majority of immigrants are simply not in relationship with Americans, and I wonder how we can bridge this gap. Sometimes the holidays is in easy on-ramp to invite over someone you haven’t before. And for immigrant invitees, it may be a welcome moment in a season that can be fraught with intense loneliness.
My husband immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala as a young man. He worked in construction in Southern California, and the majority of his co-workers were other Mexican and Central American immigrants. He has told me how the holidays were one of the most difficult times of the years. That guys would use their earnings to buy calling cards and the spend the holidays lined up at pay phones to call home.
Like the man in Tijuana, many simply cannot go home. The risks are too great, and they ache as they remember wives and children waiting for them in a far off place. It is a moment for hospitality. Think of immigrants in your daily path who may not have a place to go, and include them on an party invite list or smaller dinner gathering. Even if it’s a simple evening of hot cocoa or backyard s’mores, there is an openness time of year that makes relational risks a little easier.
For many hosts, language, cultural, or religious barriers are intimidating. But in my experience, most people are very gracious about what you don’t know in the context of hospitality. If you’re serving food, questions about dietary restrictions are already very common these days. And language differences can be eased by the presence of kids or activities like tree decorating, cookie baking, or movie watching (with subtitles).
There’s so much acknowledgement these days of our divisions in society. But we have to take those first steps – however shaky – to create community across divides. These new relationships might feel a little bumpy, but I think that’s okay. That day in Tijuana, I mostly ate in silence. My Spanish was lacking for a one-on-one conversation with a man I’d never met. But I made an effort, and he made an effort. We can change that Billy Graham statistic, but we must step out of our comfort zones and invite newcomers to our country into our homes and to our tables.