An Interview with Jessica Udall


Today, I'm thrilled to share an interview with Jessica Udall, whose book, Loving the Stranger, I reviewed last month. Jessica and I have been getting to know each other through email for the last few months, and I am constantly encouraged by her heart for immigrants and her commitment to enthusiastically sharing practical resources and tips for those who want to get involved with welcoming strangers. I am learning so much from my conversations with her and also from her blog (also called Loving the Stranger). I hope that you will be encouraged by getting to know her a little bit better as well.

Tabitha McDuffee: Can you talk a little bit about your blog, Loving the Stranger, and why you chose to start it?

Jessica Udall: You know, I think like so many people do, I wanted to create the resource that I had been looking for since I first got involved with welcoming immigrants way back in 2007—a super-practical, street-level style of encouragement and advice for people who are reaching out across cultural lines to love those who are different than them! Because doing that is scary, especially at first.

Over the years, fear is the thing I’ve seen hold so many good people back—they want to get involved, but they’re hesitant because they feel like, “What can I as an individual do in the face of the ENTIRE refugee crisis?”

What I want this blog to accomplish is to come alongside people like that and say, “You see that one family from Bhutan you just met? Can you get to know them? Can you invite them to your church’s English class? Can you call them to check in sometimes?”

My posts aim to take the overwhelm out of discussions about immigration by focusing on empowering practical action steps that readers can take to love immigrants today.

TM: How did you first become involved with welcoming immigrants? What prompted you to do so?

JU: A campus minister to international students in our college town made an announcement at my church that a local ESOL class needed American volunteers. He said that all we needed to be able to do was facilitate conversation with a small group around a table.

“I guess I could do that,” I thought, so I signed up...and the rest is history!

TM: What would you say to a Christian who is fearful of immigrants, or who sees the changing demographics in our country and is concerned by it?

JU: I’d first say it’s natural to be fearful of that which is unfamiliar. And it’s been the case several times in US history that we have been deeply suspicious of new waves of immigrants starting to settle here. But you know what dispels this fear? When the foreign becomes familiar. And the only way that happens is through contact.

So if I met a Christian who was fearful of immigrants or concerned about changing demographics, I wouldn’t spend too much time talking to (lecturing?) them. Instead, I’d ask them if they know many immigrants personally. Usually, the answer to this question is no.

Then, with enthusiasm and without judgment, I would invite them to come with me to an international friend’s house for tea, or I’d ask them to attend an ESOL class with me, or I’d ask them to help me deliver furniture to a new arrival’s bare apartment.

I’m willing to bet that if they accept my invitation and experience sharing a meal or sharing an experience with some real live immigrants (not the shadowy, abstract idea of “immigrants” that people think of when they don’t know any immigrants personally), their fear will start to melt away.

TM: What are the biggest lessons the Bible teaches about “the stranger” that perhaps many Christians haven’t heard or might not understand?

JU: As you’ve recently written, Tabitha, I think many Christians miss that one of the overarching themes of the Bible (rather than just a few proof texts) is that of displacement and finding home (leaving the Garden of Eden, Captivity in Egypt/Exodus, and the Exile/Return are a few examples that come to mind).

As Christians, we are called sojourners on this earth (1 Peter 2:11), since our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). As Christians of any nationality, then, we can resonate with the struggles and longings of immigrants who live as “strangers in a strange land.”

We must remember, too, that Jesus left his Home in heaven and “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) in order to reconcile us with God. Because of Jesus’ “immigration to earth” (if you will), and his work on our behalf, we who once were “strangers and aliens” have been welcomed by the God of the Universe into His family (Ephesians 2:19). And we look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pet 3:13).

As strangers who have been welcomed by God Himself, we are empowered to love any stranger we encounter, because our hearts have been set ablaze by the deep, deep love of Jesus.

TM: We both talk a lot on our blogs about why Christians should welcome and serve immigrants and refugees, but often I’ve found that I benefit as much (if not more!) from knowing them than they do from knowing me. What are some lessons you’ve learned from your immigrant friends and why it is so important to remember that these relationships are a two-way street?

I agree—I have benefitted from and learned from my relationships with immigrants in so many ways. One of the primary things I’ve learned (through doing it wrong for awhile) is the importance of mutuality, which you alluded to in the question. Mutuality means that if we are truly friends, we are both contributing to and cultivating the friendship, and our relationship is a living organism that’s growing organically through time spent just being with one another.

Immigrant friends have helped me see the value of “being with.” They’ve helped me realize my Western tendency towards linear thinking and my to-do list addiction. Though these tendencies had been helpful to me in accomplishing goals, they had also caused me to treat “ministry to immigrants” as one more item to cross off that to-do list, rather than a sacred opportunity in and of itself to connect with another person made in God’s image.

I used to think about “ministry to” or “doing things for” immigrants, but as a direct result of learning from immigrants, I now I tend to think about “ministry among” and “getting involved with” immigrants. With is a powerful little word. It means we’re in this together, that our relationships are characterized by mutuality, and that we’re on a beautiful two-way street of endless possibilities.