Biblical scholar illuminates ancient stories to answer pressing immigration questions


A Q&A with Father vănThanh Nguyễn SVD

Father vănThanh Nguyễn SVD, professor of New Testament Studies and the Francis X. Ford, MM, Chair of Catholic Missiology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, recently published “What Does the Bible Say About Strangers, Migrants, and Refugees” (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2021). Director of Public and Media Relations Theresa Carson had an opportunity to learn more about his thoughts on the immigration crisis, migration stories in the Bible and his personal experience as a refugee.

Father vănThanh, thank you for making time to talk about the topic of immigration. Immigration has been in the forefront of news broadcasts for quite some time. For many people, it is a very personal issue. What in particular inspired you to write “What Does the Bible Say About Strangers, Migrants, and Refugees”?

The topic of migration has captured my attention for a long time. I have read a lot on this topic and even designed a graduate course on this global phenomenon. Furthermore, having been an immigrant and refugee myself, I know what it’s like to traverse borders and to survive. Seeking shelter and a means to stay afloat were part of everyday life.

What are similarities between the contemporary stories of refugees and migrants that you include in the book and the stories of people whom you personally know?

Migration is as old as human history. As soon as humans were able to walk the earth, humanity was on the move. Thus, migration is in our DNA. The Bible, which was written a long time ago and by many who were strangers, migrants and refugees, reflect the human experience that is common to many people. The Bible could correctly be depicted as a tapestry woven together from the stories of one giant migrant family. Many biblical ancestors and characters were refugees and asylum seekers. God is often depicted in the Old Testament as a migrant traveling with the people. Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a tyrant ruler. The early apostles and disciples were itinerant missionaries. Many people were forced to travel because of persecution. So, the Bible has a lot say not only to those who are refugees and migrants but also to those who live, work and minister with and among these vulnerable human beings.

In one of your reflection questions in the book, you ask the readers which biblical immigrant characters they most admire. Which character do you most admire and why?

Oh, I have so many to choose from. Priscilla and her husband Aquila immediately come to mind. She and her husband are an amazing couple who were expelled from Rome because they were committed Christians. They ended up in Corinth [Greece], and as refugees, they encountered St. Paul and worked alongside him to develop the Corinthian church.

How has your own immigrant experience shaped your work as a biblical scholar?

Knowing what it’s like to be refugee and an asylum seeker helps me to be in solidarity with the millions of immigrants across the globe. I wish to call attention to the human face of the migration crisis so that we, communal as well as individual, can respond appropriately to this challenging issue. But the problem is that most people, particularly Christians, are unaware of this global phenomenon and crisis. Perhaps some are aware of the situation but refuse to do something about it or simply don’t know how to respond. They don’t know what or if the Bible has anything to offer or say about these issues. The matter of fact is that the Bible has a lot to say and teach us about how to respond to today’s migration crisis. So, what prompted me to write this book? To help Christians see that our biblical tradition has always been on the side of the vulnerable, strangers and immigrants. God, Jesus and most biblical characters are portrayed as migrants, strangers or refugees. Those who treat them favorably are like welcoming angels unaware.

When people ask you about your own experience as a refugee, what do you tell them?

As a refugee who floated at sea on a flimsy boat for days, I know the risk that immigrants or refugees take when they embark on the perilous journey. It is never a small matter when you leave everything you love or have behind, not knowing whether you will ever return home again—most people don’t—and what the future holds. The fact is that many lives are lost along the way; many dreams are shattered. Those who do survive, however, are forever grateful by small gestures of kindness they received along the way. These acts of kindness and charity often sustain one’s hope and strengthens one’s faith and resolve, for hope and faith are essentials to those whose lives are constantly on the move. The person who taught me these fundamental virtues of life is my mother.

How has your mother inspired you?

My mother has been a sojourner all her life. There are three especially notable moments. The first tragedy took place in 1945 when she fled the Communist oppression against Catholics and moved from the north to the south of Vietnam. In 1975, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City today) fell to the Communists from the North, my mother had to flee once again, this time across the Pacific Ocean with seven young children. Eventually, we settled in New Orleans. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and flooded the whole city, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate the city. My mother, who was then 85 years old, was rescued and taken to the infamous Superdome for shelter. Amazingly or perhaps miraculously, she survived all three major crises of dislocations and uprootedness. This past April 2021, we celebrated her 101st birthday, and she is still going strong, attending to her garden every day. She keeps reminding me, saying, “The secret of longevity is prayer for it strengthens faith and sustains hope.”

What are some of the trends that you observe in response to immigrants and refugees during the past decade?

The issue of migration has been on the top priority of the Society of the Divine Word’s agenda. The past several General Council meetings [an international SVD strategic planning meeting that takes place once every six years] have made ministry to im/migrants an ad extra priority. This is great and rightly so. Some SVD provinces have done quite well in this area, even turning their empty houses into sanctuaries for immigrants and refugees. Other provinces, however, made resolutions to confront this global crisis, but unfortunately, they simply remain words on paper with very little follow-up actions. Of course, the issue of welcoming immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, is controversial.

What do you want readers to remember when they go about their regular business?

I personally know many who are immigrants and refugees. Many of them could relate to the biblical stories that I have highlighted in the book. There are also many whom I have met along the way. Some became very successful, but many others are not so lucky. I think of the refugees and migrant workers in Germany and Eastern Europe whom I have met and the many brides who come from Southeast Asia who are forced to become sex slaves in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China. Many of them are young and are caught up on the web of human trafficking. I have heard many horrible stories and witnessed terrible crimes against innocent victims. These are the people about whom we should be most concerned. Committed Christians cannot remain idle and do nothing.

For more information or to order the book, please click here.

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