‘I’ve had nothing but trouble with immigrants ever since I came to this country.”

The statement is ironic, of course, even more so in light of Title 42 ending on May 11 which some fear, at least in the short run, might increase the chaos at our Southern border. But on a more basic level, it brings up the issue of newcomer/old-timer tension. Here are a few examples on the upside of that tension: 

Patrick Hardy

I interviewed Patrick Hardy soon after he became principal of Proviso East High School about seven years ago. He was very aware of being a “newcomer,” to the school and therefore he was going to spend his first year getting to know the school and the community in which it is embedded.

Since I am a former pastor, his approach resonated with me, because I was all too aware of stories of new pastors rolling into congregations, treating “diseases” that did not exist and fixing problems that weren’t there. 

That’s what often happens with ideological true believers. They try to fit the whole world into their ideological boxes. It’s like trying to fit the feet of Cinderella’s stepsisters into Cinderella’s slippers.

The University of Chicago’s graduate school of economics is known for creating elegant economic theory. Some of the grad students, however, were seen wearing sweatshirts with the saying, “What if it works in practice but not in theory?”


As many of you know, I belong to a Thai church and have been to Thailand 13 times. The Thai word for Westerner or foreigner is farang. Whenever I’m in the “Land of Smiles,” I’m very aware that I’m a farang.

It’s not just my limited ability to speak the language. Much more, I am reminded daily that I don’t “get” Thai culture. Sometimes I love the culture and sometimes it irritates me to no end, but at all times I’m the learner, so I watch what the natives are doing and try to fit in. Thais, for example, take their shoes off before entering a home, so I imitate that behavior. It doesn’t matter if I understand why they do it that way. I’m the newcomer so I feel obligated to fit in.

Men’s group

I belong to a men’s group that began 30 years ago and has developed its own culture, which includes being introspective. A few years ago we accepted a new member who grew up in a communal culture in a developing country. 

At first, we thought it was cool to have a non-farang, if you will, as part of the group, but as we went along, he not only refused to get introspective but also was anti-psychology. “I tried it once,” he explained, “and it didn’t work.”

This guy was the newcomer, the immigrant and it was up to him to adapt to our established culture. He wouldn’t or couldn’t adapt and the group fractured.

Who’s responsible for changing?

Here’s another joke. When two people get married, the two become one. The question is, “Which one?”

That’s the problem, or a big part of the problem, isn’t it? We’re attracted to people who are different, but when we establish marital or communal relationships with them, we want to change them.

And that’s if we establish a relationship. For too many, people who look different or think differently than we do immediately feel threatening and illicit fear and/or anger.

Beneficial change

Immigrants often do work that American citizens won’t do — like farm work.

Immigrants have often blessed America with new ideas and perspectives: e.g. Albert Einstein, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Levi Straus, NBA player Dikembe Mutombo, Joseph Pulitzer, Liz Claiborne, Madeleine Albright, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, co-founder of YouTube Steve Chen, etc., etc.

Three Greek restaurateurs

Anastosios Doulas, Kyriacos Philippou, and Elias Politis all speak Greek as their first language and own restaurants in Forest Park, but if you look at their menus, you will see only hints of their ethnic origins. 

In their private lives, they worship at Greek Orthodox churches and eat lamb on Easter, but in their business lives most of their customers are not Greek so the three entrepreneurs have adapted to the culture to which they immigrated.

They have integrated but not assimilated.

Speaking your ‘heart language’

Some of the Thai immigrants in my congregation will drive an hour to come to church on Sunday. To my knowledge the church at Brown and Dixon is the only show in the whole metro Chicago area which is both Thai and Christian.

I attend the Thai church almost every Sunday, but about once a month go to a Lutheran Church in Riverside which does the liturgy in my “heart language.” I’m trying to do what Anastosios, Kyriacos and Elias have already accomplished — roots in homogeneity and flowering in diversity.

Immigrants — do they adapt to us or do we learn from them or both?