Earlier this year, I had the privilege of baptizing an Iranian into Christ whose story is quite unique. I will call him Joseph. He grew up in a Muslim family in Tehran, Iran back in the 1970s. When the Iraq/Iran war broke out, his family decided to flee. They had hoped that they could come to the US but the family was unable to gain entrance, so they migrated to France. There, Joseph went to high school. Every day, Joseph experienced discrimination because of ethnic background. He was told to leave and that he was not wanted. But there was one Christian family that was kind to him. They welcomed him and helped him. He remembered that.
The family continued attempts at gaining visas for acceptance into the USA, but to no avail. Finally, through the work of the consulate in France, three visas were granted for Joseph’s family of seven. Joseph’s parents had to make the difficult decision to send three of their four children without them to the United States. Joseph was one of those three.
Once Joseph came to America, life was very difficult. He ended up in Louisiana by himself. He tried to work low-wage jobs in order to pay for a place to stay, but when his hours were cut, he found himself on the street. No family, no friends, and no income. A foreigner in a strange land without much hope. An acquaintance was moving to Texas and invited him to join. Once in Texas, Joseph began a similar path: working low-wage jobs, trying to survive. Eventually, though, he worked his way up the ladder where he could earn enough money to attend college. While working multiple jobs to pay for school, he finished three degrees: French literature, psychology, and social work. His passion became helping children, particularly those with difficult struggles. After a stint as a therapist, he decided to teach in a public elementary school. He earned a job working in a low-income elementary school in the neighborhood of our church. Here is where his story collides with our church’s story.
When our church started to get involved in the local elementary school where Joseph teaches, Joseph started to notice. He saw mentors from our church come and love on the children. He saw Christian adults help with school activities and serve the school. He saw Christian love in action and he remembered that Christian family in France. He started connecting the dots. So he began attending our church. He started participating in small group Bible studies, serving in ministry, and developing friends. Then, after a couple of years, I got a text message from Joseph saying, “I am ready to be baptized.” As I met with Joseph later to talk about his decision, I asked him, “Why did you not want to stay a Muslim?” He told me, “First of all, I did not believe it. But second, your church welcomed me and was kind to me. Your church has become my family.”
Earlier this year, I stood with Joseph in the baptistery. During a time when controversy swirled on immigration, travel bans, and border control, I was able to stand before the church and declare, “Joseph, we are glad that you are here.” I took his profession of faith in Christ and then baptized him.
Scripture reminds us to be aware of the foreigner and stranger. God told Israel to treat strangers as if they were natives, to love them as yourselves (Lev. 19:34). Jesus separated the sheep from the goats based on how they welcomed the stranger (Mt. 25:35). The Hebrew writer encouraged the church to show hospitality to strangers (Heb. 13:2). We do this not simply as an act of mercy – though it is that – we do this to demonstrate the love of Christ in the world. Because when people see that love, they are drawn to it. They want to know it and they want to share it.
Joseph’s family eventually made it out of France into Canada. Recently, Joseph’s mom came to visit. He was very proud to introduce her to his church family – a family that, though he was a stranger, had welcomed him in.
Steve Cloer has been the preaching minister at Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX, since 2006. This historic congregation is located two miles south of downtown Fort Worth. Steve is married to Lindsay and together they have three children, Joshua, Bethany, and Lydia. They live in an urban neighborhood near the Southside church building. Steve graduated with his D.Min. in Congregational Mission and Leadership from Luther Seminary in 2015.