A Migration-Storied Life

I am a fourth-generation immigrant from Europe.  I cannot remember ever saying that before, or naming it as a defining fact of my life—even though it is.  Both sides of my family were primarily Dutch, with splashes of English and Welsh.  I would not call my ethnic background thick, but our family’s immigrant stories were continuously present, alongside the eventual migrant stories of moves across the continent to the Northwest.  The stories were humble, poor, and struggle-filled. They were not exactly sad, but they were punctuated with difficulties.  The dominant Dutch background meant things were held stoically and, in any case, stubbornly.  Loving, bright, well-fed, big people with their stories of migration.

Our family had three primary heroes.  One was my father’s father who had no schooling until his late teens, but graduated six years later with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Iowa, and could read both Greek and Hebrew.  His wedding ring was big enough for a quarter to pass through it.  He eventually started the first electric store in Eastern Washington but died in his mid-40s, leaving a widow, four sons, and a business. 

Grandma Elsie, the widow that raised those four hulking boys, was the second hero, whom I knew as the grandmother who made daily after-school sweets and managed the Labberton Electric Store.  As a young boy, I thought her dark clothes and sad face seemed to daily reflect that life was rough, even as she stoically admitted hers was much easier than many others’.

The third hero was my mother’s mother, Grandma Laura.  Her husband also died in his early 40s, leaving her with four little girls, living in a remote farmhouse on a wheat ranch in Eastern Oregon—a home with no running water and certainly no electricity.  The four girls traveled to the one-room schoolhouse together on the back of Tony, the horse.  They slept on handmade sheets and wore handmade school dresses, all ironed with the help of a wood burning stove.  Whatever the simplicity or poverty, Grandma Laura instilled dignity and determination. She laughed often and easily.  She was elevated in the family pantheon as the eldest of nine children, and because she thrived in difficulty with nothing but honor and love.

Their stories are not those of first-generation immigrants, though their stories felt deeply immigrant to them.  They were people from another place, who lived, loved, and worked hard here, in this new land.  And did so with thanksgiving.

Growing up in Yakima, Washington, I doubt that I adequately understood that the Yakima Nation had been invaded by migrants who claimed land and opportunity that belonged to its indigenous people.  I had a clearer grasp of the fact that the farm workers who came to the Yakima Valley at harvest times were temporary migrants; only as I got older did I realize that some had a desire to stay.  Migrant children were in and out of classes with me, but my limited language skills meant I didn’t get the chance to hear and understand their stories.  I do remember, in grade school, asking a few if they minded moving as often as they did—not yet understanding what I was asking or how disconnected my reality was from theirs.  By my generation, our family’s migrant arc had passed.

The Bible is replete with migration stories and their surrounding vulnerabilities, pains, losses, and hopes.  My child’s heart for migration stories was nurtured at the family dinner table.  I only discovered that the God of the Bible is the God of migration when I came to faith early in college.  That’s when I grasped that to follow Jesus meant to be adopted into a migrant family of unlike people.  I came to realize even later that God’s love for migrants was the only way into a place of belonging that was truly safe, and that our capacities to show love to and receive love from migrants is meant to be one of the most characteristic evidences that all we have is only ever a gift to be shared.  Immigrants formed my life.  By grace, God still means for migrant life to change everything.

mark labberton

Mark Labberton, President

I am a fourth-generation immigrant from Europe.  I cannot remember ever saying that before, or naming it as a defining fact of my life—even though it is.  Both sides of my family were primarily Dutch, with splashes of English and Welsh.  I would not call my ethnic background thick, but our family’s immigrant stories were continuously present, alongside the eventual migrant stories of moves across the continent to the Northwest.  The stories were humble, poor, and struggle-filled. They were not exactly sad, but they were punctuated with difficulties.  The dominant Dutch background meant things were held stoically and, in any case, stubbornly.  Loving, bright, well-fed, big people with their stories of migration.

Our family had three primary heroes.  One was my father’s father who had no schooling until his late teens, but graduated six years later with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Iowa, and could read both Greek and Hebrew.  His wedding ring was big enough for a quarter to pass through it.  He eventually started the first electric store in Eastern Washington but died in his mid-40s, leaving a widow, four sons, and a business. 

Grandma Elsie, the widow that raised those four hulking boys, was the second hero, whom I knew as the grandmother who made daily after-school sweets and managed the Labberton Electric Store.  As a young boy, I thought her dark clothes and sad face seemed to daily reflect that life was rough, even as she stoically admitted hers was much easier than many others’.

The third hero was my mother’s mother, Grandma Laura.  Her husband also died in his early 40s, leaving her with four little girls, living in a remote farmhouse on a wheat ranch in Eastern Oregon—a home with no running water and certainly no electricity.  The four girls traveled to the one-room schoolhouse together on the back of Tony, the horse.  They slept on handmade sheets and wore handmade school dresses, all ironed with the help of a wood burning stove.  Whatever the simplicity or poverty, Grandma Laura instilled dignity and determination. She laughed often and easily.  She was elevated in the family pantheon as the eldest of nine children, and because she thrived in difficulty with nothing but honor and love.

Their stories are not those of first-generation immigrants, though their stories felt deeply immigrant to them.  They were people from another place, who lived, loved, and worked hard here, in this new land.  And did so with thanksgiving.

Growing up in Yakima, Washington, I doubt that I adequately understood that the Yakima Nation had been invaded by migrants who claimed land and opportunity that belonged to its indigenous people.  I had a clearer grasp of the fact that the farm workers who came to the Yakima Valley at harvest times were temporary migrants; only as I got older did I realize that some had a desire to stay.  Migrant children were in and out of classes with me, but my limited language skills meant I didn’t get the chance to hear and understand their stories.  I do remember, in grade school, asking a few if they minded moving as often as they did—not yet understanding what I was asking or how disconnected my reality was from theirs.  By my generation, our family’s migrant arc had passed.

The Bible is replete with migration stories and their surrounding vulnerabilities, pains, losses, and hopes.  My child’s heart for migration stories was nurtured at the family dinner table.  I only discovered that the God of the Bible is the God of migration when I came to faith early in college.  That’s when I grasped that to follow Jesus meant to be adopted into a migrant family of unlike people.  I came to realize even later that God’s love for migrants was the only way into a place of belonging that was truly safe, and that our capacities to show love to and receive love from migrants is meant to be one of the most characteristic evidences that all we have is only ever a gift to be shared.  Immigrants formed my life.  By grace, God still means for migrant life to change everything.

Written By

Mark Labberton, President

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