On September 17th, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services invites “Americans to reflect on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be a U.S. citizen.”
Today, on Citizenship Day, World Relief’s Karen Spencer, who recently became a U.S. citizen herself, reflects on what her journey to citizenship has taught her about loving our neighbors and being a good citizen.
Growing up in a small city in central Canada, I was surrounded by immigrant families who openly shared stories of endurance and escape, now embraced by a new country to call home. These families immigrated from places like Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Chile and Vietnam.
Most of my classmates were first or second-generation Canadians whose parents or grandparents warmly welcomed me into their homes, sharing interesting foods before sending me off with well-wishes in varying languages or accents.
As a second-generation Canadian myself, I clung to the tidbits of my Scottish, French and British family histories that I caught from conversations and scrapbooks. The movement of people fascinated me, so it wasn’t a surprise that I looked beyond my own country as a young adult to study in the United States. What I did not expect, however, was to fall in love with an American, marry and become an immigrant myself!
Becoming a Citizen
A few years ago, I worked with a World Relief Immigration Legal Specialist to pursue naturalization. Throughout the process, I was impressed by the expectation for me to have already displayed certain characteristics of citizenship: good moral character, adhering to the law and demonstrated service in my community.
But what intrigued me, however, was how community awareness and action were also strongly emphasized as required responsibilities for me and my fellow new citizens.
Beyond the application process itself, the naturalization ceremony emphasized giving back to our new country through acts of service. Various organizations had set up booths in a type of information fair to help us immediately find ways to serve the community. The definition of citizenship as the qualities that a person is expected to have as a responsible member of a community, was on full display.
This experience left me to wonder, do most other Americans realize this moral obligation as citizens? Or do many consider this responsibility to only apply collectively rather than personally?
Moreover, my faith compelled me to think even deeper — could it be that God’s call for me to love my neighbor is a key part of being a good citizen?
An Unsettling Reality
Lately, I have felt unsettled as I’ve watched the news and considered all the events that have forcibly displaced so many women, men and children from their homes: fires, floods, hurricanes, famine, political uprisings, war.
More than 82 million people currently live their lives displaced from their homes — some have been temporarily internally displaced, like those in Louisiana affected by Hurricane Ida’s devastating floods, or those in Haiti affected by the recent earthquake that happened in August.
Others have been evacuated from their countries on military planes as we witnessed in Afghanistan. Even more walk or run to the borders of neighboring countries for shelter in temporary refugee camps, wanting to return home, but most often left stateless for years, as fewer than one percent are invited for permanent resettlement in a third country — hopes and dreams are put on hold as the basic need for survival and safety dominate decisions.
If you’re like me, all of this can feel overwhelming, leaving you at a loss of what to do or how to help.
But as both an immigrant and naturalized citizen, I have learned that you and I hold a unique position of power, influence and responsibility, both as individuals and collectively. We can make a difference in the lives of our neighbors near and far, and as citizens of the United States, we have both a right and responsibility to do so.
From Awareness to Action
For most of my adult life, I have prayerfully discerned and sought out opportunities to love my neighbors next door, across town and around the world. But it wasn’t until I came to World Relief that I found my way and my voice as both an immigrant and naturalized citizen, to move from awareness to action — specifically when it came to meeting the needs of my immigrant neighbors and people forcibly displaced.
What I love most about my work at World Relief is that I get to invite others to join me. You and I don’t have to be stuck, distraught by the headlines. With World Relief, we can move to meaningful love-in-action through advocacy, giving financially and relationally welcoming and walking alongside our newest neighbors.
Beyond all of the ways to do this with World Relief, each of us can start by recognizing that our neighbors near and far are image-bearers of God. We can look people in the eye with care and concern, truly seeing them and their situation and recognizing without judgment that we might be in a position to help.
Individually, we can pray about what God is inviting us to do personally, or who He is inviting us to befriend, showing love in word and deed. Whether it’s joining a World Relief Good Neighbor Team, volunteering at a local library or preparing a meal for your neighbor whose spouse is going through cancer treatment, there are limitless opportunities for us to love our neighbor as Jesus so beautifully lived out throughout scripture.
On Citizenship Day, and every day, let’s demonstrate true citizenship by actively loving and welcoming our neighbors, together.
Karen Spencer is World Relief’s U.S. Marketing Partner and serves U.S. offices in the area of identity and messaging. She previously served as Mobilization Director for World Relief in Memphis, where she lives. She is a connector of people, places, passions and purpose.