By Karen González*
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Herald Press, 2019, 200 pp.
Personal narrative at its best is an act of generosity. “Here are my eyes, my body, my thoughts and emotions,” the writer of memoir says to the reader; “Here is my experience in the form of a story so for a brief spell you can inhabit a life other than your own.” Memoir is an invitation to empathy, not for the sake of bolstering the writer’s ego but for the purpose of creating a place where writer’s and reader’s hearts can meet.
In The God Who Sees, Karen González shares her immigration stories in this spirit. She looks through childhood memories of stumbling on a dead man in Guatemala, of her grandmother fending off a mugger with a switchblade on the streets of L.A., of eventually feeling alienated from her family as English became her primary language, to the gifts and hardships of immigrants everywhere, and beyond these to God’s presence in our midst. Immigrants, González shows us, are God’s image-bearers.
But she’s not playing for our sympathy. She applies her personal stories and accounts of the immigrants she works with at World Relief directly to Biblical narratives (that of Ruth, Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, the Syrophoenician woman, and, of course, the holy family). Hermeneutics, a pastor once shared in a children’s sermon, are basically the different pairs of glasses we wear to read scripture. González has written a hermeneutics of immigration.
González has written a hermeneutics of immigration.
Which might be pedantic were it not grounded in her personal narrative. González’s voice is warm, moving, and down-to-earth, much like the “kitchen theology” of her abuelitas; her stories are exceptional and ordinary, wrenching and kind. Set beside well-worn Biblical narratives, González’s memories become a lens for seeing God’s word with new eyes. Within two years of arriving in the United States, every adult in González’s family was the victim of crime, and in the case of her mother who was pistol-whipped during a mugging, the $700 emergency room bill added insult to injury. Suddenly the story of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery, subjected to false accusations, and thrown into jail for a crime he didn’t commit becomes fresh. “Vulnerable people may present themselves before us in great need and in a strange façade that we fear: a hijab, a sari, a sombrero,” González says, and their very vulnerability is a face of God.
As a third-generation European-American woman, I read this book with increasing humility—my perspective on the lives of these Biblical characters has been woefully askew. Welcome and belonging are overarching Biblical themes. Immigrant experiences of displacement, vulnerability, injustice, separation, and blind trust are ubiquitous in scripture. González had this discovery as well: “Reading the Bible through the lens of the outsider taught me truths that I lost when I relied on the readings of the dominant culture… I began to see clearly that God sees, loves, and embraces the Hagars of the world and commands us to do the same.” She touches on the timeless essence of the stories—how Christ invariably appears as “the least of these,” beckoning for a drink. “Christians seeking to live lives faithful to the Scriptures have no choice but to welcome immigrants, trusting in the abundance of God’s economy.”
Set beside well-worn Biblical narratives, González’s memories become a lens for seeing God’s word with new eyes.
When Biblical scholars, theologians, and ministers ground their work in personal narrative, they do us all a service. Exposition speaks to the head; stories speak to the heart. Story is humanity’s first meeting place. And memoir helps us be up front with others about the lens we bring to bear on the world. Kudos to González for sharing her lens at a time when it’s sorely needed.
*Karen González was a participant in the Collegeville Institute’s Writing for Mystic Activists regional writing workshop in May 2019.