The story of immigration in the United States and Canada is a richly textured one. People come from all walks of life, from varied corners of the globe. They come from war-ravaged countries and from neighboring nations. They come both eagerly and reluctantly. And they adjust to their new country in their own individual and unique ways. Here, three Covenanters tell stories of their experiences as newcomers to North America.
A Forever Stranger No Longer
Miyoung Cho is a church planter in Calgary, Alberta, where she lives with her husband and two children.
Holidays, especially Christmas, are the most difficult times for lonely immigrant families who do not have relatives or close friends. One Christmas season my family was invited by three families for three Christmas dinners in a row. We accepted each of those invitations with great excitement and appreciation. (However, we did become tired of the turkey dinner after enjoying it for three days in a row!)
People might wonder why we accepted all those invitations. As I look back, I remember how thrilled we were to be treated as “formally invited guests.” I had lived as a Korean immigrant in Canada since 2003, and the Canadian government had accepted my family as legal immigrants. Yet the life of an immigrant was like the ongoing experience of being an uninvited guest.
I disliked my status as a guest. I wanted to be a host who was rooted in this country, and I wanted to make this land my home. I had already left my own country behind and now regarded Canada as my home, so when people asked, “When are you planning to go back to Korea?” I was reminded of my status as a “forever stranger.”
One summer I worked as a chaplain intern. There was an aboriginal man with HIV in my hospital unit. He looked seriously ill and lay on the bed all day coughing. In addition to his intimidating look, his whole life seemed uncontrolled and miserable. I honestly did not even want to visit his room.
The treatment plan for him at the hospital was almost all about prohibition. Prejudice against native people meant that he was not even allowed to go to the main lobby because the staff was afraid that he would meet a drug dealer there. Everyone only talked about what he shouldn’t do. Nobody asked him what he wanted to do. One day I asked him, “What do you want to do first when you go out of the hospital?”
I saw desperate desire in his eyes. He said, “I want to drink Tim Horton’s coffee.”
The next morning I stopped by his room and dropped off a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee. I still cannot forget that smile on his face. The next day he started to get out of his bed and wandered around the hallway in a wheelchair. Offering a small gesture of hospitality had given him a ray of hope.
Immigrant, Refugee, Foreigner
John Notehelfer is the interim executive minister of church growth and evangelism.
I came to the United States as a stranger. Call me an immigrant. Call me a refugee. Call me that German missionary kid who arrived here as a thirteen-year-old in l947 – I was all three.
I was a foreigner with neither knowledge of the English language nor appreciation for American culture. I was a refugee after surviving World War II with our family in Japan and coming to America destitute. I was, of all things, a German missionary kid who came to the United States only two years after the Germans finally surrendered to the Allies.
My dad went to Japan in 1929 as a German missionary and did not leave Japan until we immigrated to the States in l947. All six of us children were born and raised in Asia.
It was a huge decision for my folks to come to the United States instead of returning to Germany. My mom wept her heart out before finally agreeing that this would be best for the family. She also hoped to return to Japan.
Was God good to us? Was America good to us? Were God’s people good to us? The answer to all three of those questions is a resounding “yes.” Did we face our own challenges as strangers – as newcomers to this land? Of course we did.
I recall my younger siblings being harassed in their elementary school for being German “kraut.” When our folks tried to visit their only distant relatives in New York, the relatives, who had lost their son in the war, would not even let my parents in the house because they had been missionaries to the “hated Japs.”
We were poor. When our dad returned to Japan by himself to help prepare the new wave of American missionaries (1949-1953), my immigrant mother became the primary breadwinner as a hospital aide. We kids worked odd jobs as teenagers to support the family. I recall trays of leftover bread and goodies from Baker Swanson being dropped off at our house on Saturday evenings after the bakery closed.
We were poor throughout my youth. I did choke on the fact that our family was perceived by some as a “charity case” and that we lived on hand-me-downs from kind donors. But we grew up in a wonderful, Godfearing family with a mother who was a profound prayer warrior with a personal faith in God’s goodness and provisions that stretched the faith of all of us.
And there was the Evangelical Covenant Church.
We ended up in Turlock, California, in 1948. We had been invited to trade homes with an American missionary who would use our home in Tokyo, while we used his in Turlock. The house was a converted carpenter shop on the back part of the property – humble but adequate.
It was Beulah Covenant Church in Turlock that put their arms around our immigrant family and poured out their love and care on all of us. The church supported my dad on his missionary tour of duty in 1949-1953 and again when both Mom and Dad returned to Japan for another twelve years in 1953-1965. The Covenant church became our spiritual home during those critical years.
I eventually became a Covenant pastor in 1959. My siblings entered the ministry, became teachers, and served the church.
Here is a most interesting twist: our family arrived in San Francisco on Halloween in 1947. We spent our first month in the Bay area. Without knowing anything about the religious scene in America and, of course, knowing nothing about the various denominational affiliations, our family was taken to First Covenant Church in Oakland for Sunday worship. I attended there as a thirteen-year-old immigrant boy, a refugee, a poor German missionary kid.
As God in his amazing providence would have it, I would return to First Covenant in Oakland and serve that wonderful congregation as senior pastor nearly thirty years later.
Learning Another Way of Living
Flor Graterol is a chaplain at the Hispanic Center for Theological Studies (CHET) and attends El Encino Covenant Church in Downey, California.
“We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow…” (1 Chronicles 29:15, TNIV).
This verse has given me strength to live in a country that is not mine, and in a world that is not mine. It reminds me that our home is in heaven with our father God.
I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, a modern city in a country famous for its oil. I didn’t have any idea that one day I would live in another country, another culture with another language, and another way of living.
It was July 1988 when I first came to Los Angeles. I was attending a big Hispanic Christian conference. There were well-known speakers, such as Luis Palau, Alberto Mottessi, and Billy Graham, and everything was in Spanish. Arriving in Orange County, the home of Disneyland, was a dream come true for me.
A Christian woman let three friends and me stay in her home while we attended the conference. She was very nice to us. Her house was neat and clean, and every day she even gave us a lunch bag so we wouldn’t have to spend our money to eat. God bless Florine, wherever she is.
Later, in Anaheim I met a Mexican pastor who offered to help me learn my way around the mix of Hispanic cultures in Los Angeles. I did not understand the complexities of immigration issues. I did not have a job or any money, but I had my Lord.
I was living in an apartment that belonged to a woman from a Hispanic church where I was attending each week. I spoke a little English, and I decided to go to an English school nearby.
The English teacher offered me a small job as a student aide, helping Hispanic students to do their homework and learn English. Even though I was working solely with Hispanic people, they came from many different countries and there was much to learn from each culture.
In my country I was a graphic designer, and that experience helped me to get a job at a printing shop. For six years I worked there eight hours every day. It was a difficult experience. I was in charge of designs, but I was also responsible for doing the customer service. I was not compensated for doing that extra work, and the owner was a very difficult man to work for. The experience helped me learn how to deal with different kinds of people and to speak better English.
My English got better and I was able to apply for a better job. I met a man from France who was the owner of a greeting card company, and he gave me a job as a graphic designer. I did not have a good salary because I was not an American citizen, but I was able to learn more about technology and art.
I worked ten years for that company. I was able to rent an apartment, pay for a car, and create a decent life in this country that is not mine. But when the greeting card company declared bankruptcy, I lost my job.
Once more the Lord opened a new door, this time to serve him full-time, which had always been my passion. The Hispanic Center for Theological Studies (CHET) was in need of help. In 2007 I became licensed as a chaplain for the seminary, and now I have the blessing of being part of the staff at CHET.
Throughout these twenty years, I have experienced God’s hand guiding me. Of course from time to time nostalgia takes my heart to Venezuela. I still get homesick, I still feel nervous about speaking English. Leaving behind a family, a language, and a culture is costly, but in the process I have been able to understand and practice God’s command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, TNIV).