But the mood was anything but solemn on a beautiful spring day as 72 immigrants crowded into the chamber to take the oath of U.S. citizenship, accompanied by throngs of family members, friends and assorted crying babies. "Cries of freedom," the judge wryly observed later in the ceremony.
The citizens-to-be filled one entire side of the courtroom and the jury box. The rest of us packed every remaining seat. "Are you sufficiently uncomfortable?" asked the court official who heroically attempted to arrange us. Yes, ma'am.
I was there to cheer Helen, 20, a member of my church who emigrated from Nepal with her family nine years ago (her younger brother would become a citizen two days later). Now a rising junior in college, she's majoring in social work and wants to serve God by serving the poor and needy. She's already been doing that for years by helping her mother, who ministers to Nepali refugees resettling in our area.
This being a government function, paperwork and plenty of hurry-up-and-wait came first. This being Virginia -- and one of the original court districts established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 -- volunteers from the Daughters of the American Revolution assisted. All rose as Judge David J. Novak entered the court to administer the Oath of Allegiance to the United States and welcome America's newest citizens.
"It's a fine day to become an American. Whaddaya think?" said Novak, the grandson of Czech immigrants, as he strode to the bench.
"We're a nation of immigrants," he added, highlighting some of the great Americans who came from other places. New waves of immigration add vitality to our culture. What makes America different? You can go to other countries but never really become one of their own, Novak said, "but anyone can come here from any corner of the world, and you can be an American." He outlined the rights and duties of citizenship, then asked the group of 72 to stand and lift their right hands for the oath.
Following the 140-word pledge, Novak declared, "It is an honor to be the first to welcome you to the United States -- my fellow citizens!" Applause. Smiles. Tears and hugs. Novak led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and came down from the bench to shake hands with each new citizen as their names and countries of origin were read aloud.
Despite the racial and linguistic diversity of the group, I had assumed they came from eight or 10 different countries. After all, Richmond isn't New York, Washington or Los Angeles. I was wrong. These 72 new Americans, in this single ceremony, came from Italy, India, the Philippines, Egypt, Mexico, Iran, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Brazil, the Netherlands, Honduras, Ethiopia, Canada, El Salvador, Pakistan, Ecuador, China, Guyana, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belize, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago, Vietnam, New Zealand, Venezuela, Guatemala, Senegal, Bosnia, Croatia, South Korea, Nepal, Morocco and Jamaica.
That's 38 countries. Count 'em, 38. E pluribus unum, reads the Great Seal of the United States: "Out of many, one."
The scene powerfully reminded me that the nations have come to us. Has any land ever been such a powerful magnet to people yearning for freedom and opportunity as America?
Some folks believe American society is being fragmented by the constant influx of outsiders and that "out of many, one" is becoming "out of many, chaos." But I'm with Judge Novak: I believe new Americans bring new energy, creativity and productivity to our culture, as they always have.
The more important question: What are God's purposes in this historic movement of people from everywhere to a single nation?
"We are living in an unprecedented time in the history of our world," IMB urban strategist Terry Sharp writes. "More people are living outside their country of birth than any other time; many of them are coming to America. In fact, more than 1 million immigrants come to America each year. That's not counting more than 750,000 international students who will come to study, nor does it include the 75,000 refugees that are resettled in our country each year. Add the business travelers and tourists who are visiting. When you start adding up the numbers, it doesn't take long to realize that God desires His people groups to hear the Gospel so much that He's sending them to us.
What can you do?
Start small -- Smile at the woman at the grocery store who came from somewhere else. Help her find the items she needs from the bewildering array of choices. Invite that new family on your street or in your apartment complex over for a meal. Ask about their lives and experiences.
Listen -- Offer assistance with English practice. Help their kids with homework. Offer advice on starting a bank account, finding a doctor, getting a driver's license.
Be a friend -- Many immigrants and refugees from community-oriented cultures struggle with the hyper-individualism and isolation of American culture. (Find many more ideas and resources here: http://www.ethnecity.com/.)
The newcomer you welcome might be a high-flying business executive or a struggling refugee. Either way, they need a friend.
And chances are, they need Jesus.
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent. Visit WorldView Conversation, the blog related to this column. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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