She didn't see any books by immigrants, so Karen Gonzalez wrote one herself
NEW YORK — Karen Gonzalez was having dinner with her sister after watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Broadway, a musical about one of America’s Founding Fathers and immigrant Alexander Hamilton, when she realized she should write about her own experience immigrating to California at age nine.
“It got me to thinking, there were no books by immigrants themselves. Most books were written by Americans,” Gonzalez said about literature on the present-day immigration experience. “That’s fine, but we need to tell our stories, too,” she said. “We add a richness that they don’t have, because they didn’t live our stories.”
Gonzalez immigrated with her mother and siblings to Los Angeles from her native Guatemala City, to join her father who had left for the U.S. a year earlier. The political turmoil in Guatemala in the early 1980’s destabilized the economy, and Gonzalez’s father was unable to find a job to support his family. She tells her family’s story in her book published this summer, called The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong.
“Immigration is such a polarizing issue right now,” Gonzalez said about the current state of the U.S, and even among Christians. “I think I would have them really consider, ‘Do my ideas about this really reflect Jesus’ teachings?’”
Immigrants of the Bible
Because Gonzalez identifies as both an immigrant and a Christian, she says she felt the need to write her book by weaving together her personal experiences with examples of immigrant stories from the Bible.
“Restricting people’s movement is really what is not natural,” she said, explaining that immigration has been taking place ever since the first book of the Bible, Genesis.
She mentions in her book how Abram (who is later renamed Abraham, and one of the founding fathers of the Christian faith) finds himself in famine, which drives him to migrate to Egypt in over to survive. Then, his wife, Sarah, forgot her own mistreatment in Egypt, and oppressed her own servant Hagar. Hagar runs away to the desert where she has an encounter with God.
“Hagar in the desert reminds all of us that the Spirit can be found in the places we least expect: with the poor, the outcasts, the enslaved people, the domestic help, and the foreigners,” writes Gonzalez. “God shows up not just for... the native citizens with rights but for the undocumented maid in the kitchen.”
Gonzalez, who herself remembers feeling very lost and lonely when she first arrived to the U.S. as a young girl, also writes about the migration of Naomi and Ruth, and even the parents of Jesus himself, as described in the gospel of Matthew. An angel appeared to Joseph (Mary’s husband) in a dream and told him to take Mary and escape to Egypt and to stay there until God told him it was time to leave.
“I believe firmly that in God’s family, there are no borders,” writes Gonzalez, who was introduced to the Christian faith by her grandmother as a young girl, as her parents did not really believe in God.
A life-altering experience
When Gonzalez, a former public school teacher, moved to Kazakhstan for three years to teach English, her faith was challenged and her life altered, she said.
“The gospel didn’t seem to work there,” Gonzalez said. She was taught to defend her faith by saying, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’”
However, that line didn’t mean anything to the people she met in Kazakhstan, Gonzalez said.
“I remember having a conversation with someone there and her concern was about survival, and how to live her life,” Gonzalez said. “I brought this gospel that didn’t address their needs. They wanted to know if God cared about the poor.”
Gonzalez remembers feeling that if the gospel doesn’t work in this part of the world, then the gospel as she knew it wasn’t real. Her faith crisis led her to study theology and missiology at Fuller Theological Seminary from 2007 to 2011.
“I think seminary saved my faith. It allowed me to deconstruct and rebuild,” Gonzalez said. “In the circle that I ran, the point of discipleship is not to have bad thoughts, be less selfish, but the gospel is also for the poor and marginalized. I had been discipled to believe God blessed me, because I had a job, and I had to get married and have kids - that that was the trajectory of following Jesus. But in seminary, I met a lot of Christians who also cared about transforming our communities, and addressing injustices. I think that was the component I was missing before. You still need to pray, and be less selfish, but God also cares about the poor and transforming the world for good.”
For the last 10 years, Gonzalez has been working for a non-profit organization in Baltimore, Maryland that assists local churches to serve the needs of immigrants and refugees.
When asked what she thought Jesus would say about building the wall separating the U.S. from Mexico, Gonzalez said, “The people who promote this are not following his way. I think these people don’t trust in God’s economy, and are those who don’t love their neighbor as themselves. I think this idea says, ‘Our family is more important than yours,’ and that is fundamentally anti-Christian. I think Jesus would say, what he said, in Matthew 25.”
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Kristina Puga is founding editor of WiserWithAge.com, which honors individuals age 60 and over who are actively pursuing their careers and life’s purpose, and have no plans of stopping. Kristina is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and graduated from The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.