LANCASTER, Pa. — Do we really see who’s at our door? Or do we see who we expect to see? Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) worker Dr. Philip Gottschalk says much of what we see when we look at the “other” — the immigrant, the refugee — depends on what we are prepared to see and what we expect to see.
Phil believes there’s a war going on about perceptions. In his new book “Entertaining Angels Unaware: Welcoming the Immigrant Other,” the seminary professor challenges those perceptions and presents a Christian response to immigration.
False presentations of refugees and immigrants and their needs bothered Phil so he decided to address it. He saw such unfounded notions firsthand when he lived in Novi Sad, Serbia, from 1992 to 1994, when thousands of IDPs (internally displaced persons) were coming from Bosnia and Croatia.
Phil currently lives in the Netherlands where he teaches at Tyndale Theological Seminary in Badhoevedorp and is the chair of the Division of Theological and Historical Studies. The Pittsburgh native also lived in the former Yugoslavia, Austria, and Belgium where he had experiences dealing with refugees in all of these countries, as well as in Greece. The result was a book that Phil wrote in just a few months in 2016 but spent the next few years revising and adding to it.
“The biggest misconception I see is that immigrants and refugees are dangerous and will become terrorists, or that they want to flood Western countries and eventually take over,” Phil said. “Most immigrants and refugees are fleeing war and abuse. Most, including Muslims, hate extremists like ISIS. Many have lost their homes, their cities, and their relatives to extremists. Immigrants and refugees are looking for safety and a future.”
“Entertaining Angels Unaware” is meant to answer misconceptions, present facts, and put a face on real people who are basically more like us than they are different, Phil said. He hopes the book inspires people to help immigrants and refugees in a “realistic and doable way.”
EMM Mission Team Director Lorri Bentch finds the book to be a valuable resource. “Phil reveals his heart of compassion and makes a compelling, convicting plea for us to join him in welcoming and embracing the strangers in our midst.”
Some false assumptions we harbor might need to be unlearned, Phil warns. Christians should respond to newcomers based on what the Bible teaches and reflect our commitment to Christ. Phil explains that the Christian response to immigrants should be to see them as "people for whom Christ died, and thus people we can befriend, care for and evangelize without crossing any political borders."
Phil recounts standing in an airport security line in London when an American man behind him commented that the security guard was Muslim. The guard’s turban and netted beard clearly pointed to him being a Sikh. “My countryman in the line did not know a Sikh from a Muslim, but why would he without being taught to know the difference? We see what we expect to see based on our limited experiences.”
“I need this book, for it reminds me to open my arms and invite the stranger and that neighbor whom I have not yet learned to know,” David W. Shenk wrote in the book’s foreword. The retired EMM global consultant wrote, “in renewed ways, the family of Abraham needs to own commitment to peacemaking.”
Our commitment to the ways of Jesus compels us to help those less fortunate than ourselves, Phil said. Welcoming and accepting refugees should be seen as safe and the right thing to do.
“People bring up the Boston Marathon bombing or the San Bernardino shooting but those acts were not done by people who were legal immigrants. They entered the U.S. on student, tourist, or business visas. Refugees and immigrants are subjected to a lot of scrutiny and must go through a lengthy vetting process before being admitted to the U.S.” Phil said. “People are surprised to learn that the chances of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.86 billion.”
The 244-page book is arranged in three parts: “Welcoming the Stranger;” “Making Careful Distinctions;” and “Personal Encounters.” Published in February 2021 by Cascades Books (Wipf and Stock Publishers), “Entertaining Angels Unaware” can be purchased at wipfandstock.com, amazon.com, or local booksellers.