Book Review: ‘The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong’ by Karen Gonzalez

Review by Bekah McNeel. Bekah McNeel is immigrant communities editor for Christianity Today.


Recently, a pastor in San Antonio was speaking publicly about his work with immigrants. Someone in the crowd asked him how he defends his work against critics, those who say that he is misguided in his compassion for those coming to the US uninvited.

Rather than argue policy and sling data, the pastor said he always begins with, “Here is what I’ve seen with my own eyes …”

This is essentially the strategy that World Relief immigrant advocate Karen González adopts in her first book, The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong. Knowing that she is writing into a world polarized by the issues she raises, González uses her autobiography and the stories of biblical immigrants to make the case for more welcoming immigration laws.

To See and Be Seen

González herself is an immigrant, from Guatemala, and she calls on that personal testimony to give a firsthand account of the fears, insecurities, and elations of the immigration process. She recalls finding dead bodies on the walk home from school, feeling lost as a non-English speaker in her first US church, and the difficult decision to leave her family home to attend college after the death of her mother.

The biographical portions of González’s story are broken up into thematic chapters following the sacraments of the Catholic church, a faith expression to which she feels some affinity, though she herself is Protestant and her parents were only nominally Catholic at most. The approach is reminiscent of Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath, which does the same with Jewish traditions, pointing out their enduring relevance for Winner’s Christian faith.

Alongside her own story, González examines the lives of other “foreigners” in the Bible: Ruth, Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30), and the Holy Family. She draws parallels between these vulnerable people and the asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants US residents encounter in their communities. In looking at these figures in light of their displaced situation, González reminds the reader that upheaval and vulnerability are common to the people of God, and they offer opportunities for God to demonstrate his nature, his concern for them.

It is Hagar, the despised servant of Sarai and mother of Ishmael, who calls Yahweh “El Roi,” or, “the God who sees.” Again and again in the book, we realize that being misunderstood and unknown is at the core of the immigrant experience, giving immigrants a special appreciation for what it means to be seen and known.

Reflecting on how she experienced God after her baptism as an evangelical Christian, González writes, “My days were long and dull, and I felt so much the outsider everywhere I went. But that event, in which I was plunged into the waters of my second baptism, made me feel seen by God.” She adds, “God saw me too—God saw a bewildered girl in a new country, walking to school with her brother.”

Seasoned with Grace

Despite the many ambitions of her book—biblical exposition, personal testimony, and immigrant advocacy—González keeps it simple. Like the pastor in San Antonio, she is not trying to argue a point but to tell a story.

Given the political spotlight on immigration in the Trump era, it is possible for readers to find more exhaustive treatments of the topic, from root causes to legal histories. This is not an immigration omnibus, not even a primer. However, González does not shy away from these issues, as she obviously has a deep understanding of the legal and social ramifications of immigration reform. She is frank and factual about the role of the US in destabilizing Guatemala and the exploitation of undocumented workers. She is honest about her own journey through various schools of thought about who does and does not belong in the US.

Like many advocates for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, González does not view mercy and justice as separable endeavors. Nor does she believe that “that’s the law” is the answer. “The United States,” she writes, “is a constitutional republic whose laws change all the time because citizens recognize that the law is not inerrant.” It’s clear where González stands. The God Who Sees is not a “both sides” kind of book.

However, perhaps because of its simplicity and her plain dealing, the book is not shrill. It offers as much grace as it does confrontation for those tempted to fear “the other” or those who see increased immigration as an existential threat to their culture. The grace she offers is not a validation of those fears but a hopeful alternative, wherein the native-born are free to welcome the foreigner.

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Source: Christianity Today