A Vision of Love
As an advocate for immigrants and refugees, Yang's vision of love includes a universal welcoming of the stranger.
A 21st-century social justice and immigration advocate, Jenny Yang demonstrates the vision of love through her advocacy for immigrants. Her approach, founded in the biblical idea of accepting the grace God offers, and then extending it to the stranger, is intended to model for others more effective ways of showing compassion to others—especially to those in need.
When we talk about immigration, I believe it's not just a test of our politics. Our response to immigration fundamentally is a test of our faith, what we ultimately believe about the gospel and about people who are made in the image of God.
Dozens of pro-immigration demonstrators cheer and hold signs as international passengers arrive at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.
Yang was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the daughter of Korean immigrants. In Korea, Yang’s grandfather owned and ran a prestigious newspaper in the 1900s. During the Korean War, Communist forces were ordered to kill media personnel, and her grandfather lost his life. Her grandmother died a few years later, leaving Yang’s father orphaned at the age of seven. During this period of poverty and hardship, Yang’s father found hope and comfort in prayer and the Bible, which he had learned from his mother and American missionaries.
The LORD your God is supreme over all gods and over all powers. He is great and mighty, and he is to be obeyed. He does not show partiality, and he does not accept bribes. He makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; he loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt.
After high school in post-war South Korea, Yang’s father won a national car repair competition, which eventually earned him a job with Ford Motor Company. Yang’s parents, who met and married in Korea, then earned legal entry into the United States. After receiving his citizenship, Yang’s father fulfilled his lifelong dream of owning his own auto shop, which he often used to help those less fortunate in the community. He also served in his local church, and wrote articles for a local Korean language newspaper.
During her youth, Yang and her family regularly attended an ethnic Korean Presbyterian church in the Philadelphia suburbs, and inherited a strong work ethic from their parents. But as a first-generation American, Yang gave little thought to her identity as the child of immigrants. “I know that my family is not unique,” she said. As she entered adolescence, however, she began to feel the pressure of straddling two cultures. She was fully an American by birth, and yet also fully Korean by family bonds and ethnic heritage, a culture foreign to most Americans’ experience. She felt at times, something like an outsider in her own country.
As she worked through these struggles, Yang recalls being inspired by Asian-American news anchor Connie Chung, and the way she reported human-interest stories on television. Yang dreamed of being a journalist like Chung and like her grandfather, someone who could stand up for those without a voice. “I’ve always felt a deep compassion for those suffering from pain, war, and conflict,” she explains, “and I wanted people to see and feel the way I saw and felt the world.” When she was accepted to The Johns Hopkins University, Yang took the opportunity to study journalism, give a voice to the voiceless, and continue the family legacy.
Jenny Yang and family at her graduation from the Johns Hopkins University.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Yang
It was while riding the subway during a study-abroad program in Spain that Yang says she discovered her life’s calling. As she commuted to class, she saw an African mother with her young children get on the train. A group of Spaniards boarded shortly after and, spotting the African family, spray-painted the words “Get out of my country, black people!” on the subway wall. Yang reports being deeply disturbed by both the act itself and the accepting response of other people on the train. She was moved to volunteer for the nonprofit organization SOS Racisme, dedicated to combating racism in Spain. She also began work at the Madrid office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In both experiences, she worked with local communities to educate people and change prevailing cultural attitudes while also deepening her own understanding of the ways that systems and laws can perpetuate injustice. By the time she returned to the U.S., she knew she wanted to work specifically with refugees.
Humanitarian convoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distributing aid to people in Goradze, Bosnia, 1992.
Photo by Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images
After earning her undergraduate degree international relations, Yang worked at a large Maryland political consulting firm, learning how to fundraise and manage campaigns for local politicians. A year later she began work with World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association for Evangelicals, and one of only nine organizations authorized to resettle refugees in the U.S.
Work at World Relief, Yang says, helped her to recognize more of the complexities surrounding immigration. She came to recognize her own misconceptions related to undocumented immigrants, and found new compassion for the individuals affected by immigration policy. She began to see how broken the immigrant process had become, and felt a growing conviction to have Christian churches play a role in highlighting the human impact of national and international policies.
As Yang began to work more closely with immigrants, she grew concerned by the number of professing religious people who seemed to disdain immigrants and actively oppose immigration reform. She saw so many of her fellow Christians speak in a negative or demeaning way about those whom she viewed as needing the most compassion. This moved her to speak out. “I thought that the church should be the most pro-immigrant. That's what Jesus would want us to do,” she says.
Yang began speaking with pastors, telling them the stories of immigrants she encountered through her day-to-day work with World Relief, and addressing misconceptions around undocumented immigrants. She reached out to congregations, helping Christians thoughtfully encounter the dilemma of obeying biblical teachings around welcoming the stranger, while also following and upholding public laws as mandated in the Bible. She also provided information to larger audiences on the public benefits of immigration, whether through the values immigrants instill in a country or the opportunities to enter fellowship with those who have different experiences of God.
Jenny Yang speaks about themes in her book, Welcoming the Stranger (2009).
As the Church attempts to apply sacred scripture to the current immigration debate, Jenny Yang offers a new perspective that combines justice with compassion. Video courtesy of Jenny Yang and Q Ideas.
Now the vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, Yang also works with elected officials and government agencies on refugee and immigration policy. In 2013, she also helped form the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of Christian organizations that advocate for comprehensive immigration reform consistent with the values and teachings of the Bible.
As an American Christian, my fear is that the conversation about immigration in this country has become so political that we have missed out on what God is actually doing through the migration of millions of people and may potentially miss the unique missional opportunity that is in front of us.
Jenny Yang speaks about biblical principles as they apply to immigration.
Jenny Yang connects the stories and values about movement and immigration in the Bible to today's modern world and a new missional strategy. Video courtesy of Jenny Yang and :Redux.
As part of her work, Yang has become an advocate for changing the laws around immigration that she believes are both morally unjust and not reflective of American ideals and values. She also has a passion for equipping the church to reflect upon biblical ideals and values that may apply to immigration issues and to encourage effective measures of outreach for forming friendships with those in their communities who are vulnerable and marginalized.
Jenny Yang leading a press conference on immigration at the U.S. Senate, bringing together Senators and religious leaders.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Yang
Yang sees her perspective on immigration as building directly on biblical principles of love and the welcome of our neighbors. Through her efforts to support those who are forced to flee from their homes or who remain vulnerable because of their legal status, Yang works to demonstrate compassion toward others, and to realize her vision of a more just society, one that is measured by how lovingly we treat the people among us—in particular, those who most need our support.