By Michael Cheuk
I am an immigrant.
I was born in Hong Kong. My parents immigrated to the United States when I was seven years old.
During World War II, my dad became a child refugee after his father was killed in an accident and he was separated from his mother and siblings. Around the age of ten, my dad joined a group of orphans fleeing from the invading Japanese army by seeking shelter village to village. He remembers subsisting on one small bowl of rice a day, if he was lucky.
In the 1950s, my maternal grandfather was monitored and harassed by Communist officials for being a “capitalist pig.” He worked for an insurance company, and he could not even go to a public bathroom without being followed and observed by a member of the Communist party.
In 1966, the year I was born, my parents observed the devastating effects of the Chinese Cultural Revolution initiated by Mao Zedong’s efforts to strengthen communist China by purging of all remnants of capitalist and traditional elements.
In the name of ideological purity and loyalty to Mao, family members were encouraged to turn against each other. My maternal grandfather’s oldest son publicly denounced his father as a capitalist. The Red Guards and those loyal to Mao humiliated and harassed those deemed as an enemy of the state. Those who did not fall into line were imprisoned, tortured and/or sent to the countryside to be “re-educated.”
During this time, minority cultures within China were persecuted and killed, including Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and those of Mongolian and Korean descent. All this in a country that had a Great Wall built for centuries.
My parents saw all this in the relative safety of Hong Kong. They also knew that Hong Kong was slated to be returned to China in 1997. They decided to move the family out of Hong Kong in order to give my sister and me a chance for a better life.
We were lucky. We had family members who were already in the States to sponsor us. We immigrated in 1973, and eventually became grateful and proud citizens of the United States.
I am thankful to be a first-generation immigrant.
That’s why it pains me to hear about President Trump’s executive order last Friday that severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely.
The purpose of this executive order is “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” I know that President Obama has issued executive orders on Muslim refugees and immigrants. Peter Weber wrote an article identifying the similarities and differences.
From my perspective, President Trump’s executive order is extremely troubling for several reasons.
First, this order targets the wrong groups of people. According to CNN, no refugees have carried out fatal terror attacks here in the United States.
Second, the order does not target Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. According to NPR, “those are the countries of origin of a number of people who carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. starting with September 11, 2001. Those countries also happen to be places where President Trump and his family have business interests.”
Finally, this order has grave implications for thousands of people who are in the United States legally. They have already gone through the vetting system. They followed the rules, broke no law and are responsible, contributing members of our society. According to Pro-Publica, this order will block 500,000 legal U.S. residents from returning to America from trips abroad.Folks who see this issue differently will debate my reasons and choice of facts.
However, given my family’s story, I can’t help but see warning signs in the United States today of the realities that my parents saw over 50 years ago in China.
- The rise of a leader who seeks to strengthen a nation through strong-arm tactics.
- The fracturing of a country where people humiliate, harass and dominate each other, even within families.
- Silencing the press or any act of speech that is deemed a critique of the government.
- The persecution of minority groups in the name of safety and security.
I know that the U.S. is not there yet, but for me, it raises an uncomfortable sense of foreboding.
Most importantly, I am a Christian, a former Baptist pastor of over 20 years. I am a part of a much larger faith story as recorded in the Bible, in the Gospels and in Baptist history. As such, I am formed and informed by these themes in my faith story:
- My spiritual ancestors were refugees and immigrants. Israelites making an offering to the Lord were instructed to say: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous” (Deuteronomy 26:4-11).
- Because my spiritual ancestors were foreign immigrants, they were constantly reminded to care for other foreigners and immigrants in their land: “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
- Jesus was a refugee with Joseph and Mary to Egypt in order to escape persecution from Herod (Matthew 2:16-18).
- My Baptist ancestors were originally persecuted by other Christians in Europe.
- Thomas Helwys, a proto-Baptist in England, died in prison as a result of religious persecution under King James I.
Helwys wrote: “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures.” (my emphasis).
Baptists immigrated to America to escape religious persecution. Later, it was a Virginia Baptist minister, John Leland, who played a significant role in the crafting of the First Amendment to the Constitution, safeguarding religious liberty, free speech and a free press.
I am an immigrant.
I am thankful to live in a country made great by welcoming immigrants.
My faith is informed by the importance of welcoming foreigners, immigrants and refugees.
I pray that I have the courage to live out my life and faith stories.
May I welcome immigrants and advocate for refugees in our midst in this new day and age.
Michael Cheuk is a former Baptist pastor who now ministers as a coach and consultant at michaelkcheuk.com.
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