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Urban Nations Update: The Dark Side of the Dream

But many immigrants—however prepared they might have been to work, compete, sacrifice, scrape and scrimp in their pursuit of "the American Dream"—have failed to consider that their pursuit of "the dream" might lead their families into a nightmare. Their desire for "success" is understandable, even admirable. But the hidden costs are exacting a toll many were completely unprepared for. They simply neglected to put a column for "family" in their spreadsheet, or, having put it there, placed it last instead of first (under God).

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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We know that most immigrants are coming to America for economic reasons: there's far more opportunity to earn far more money here than they could ever have dreamed of having hack home.

But many immigrants—however prepared they might have been to work, compete, sacrifice, scrape and scrimp in their pursuit of "the American Dream"—have failed to consider that their pursuit of "the dream" might lead their families into a nightmare. Their desire for "success" is understandable, even admirable. But the hidden costs are exacting a toll many were completely unprepared for. They simply neglected to put a column for "family" in their spreadsheet, or, having put it there, placed it last instead of first (under God).

Witness the case of Emil and Lana.' They came to America from Russia five years ago with their 11-year-old son, Kevin. (With a few exceptions, the families we know from the former Soviet empire have just one child, or none.) Arriving with enthusiasm and determination, Emil sought to become economically self-sufficient post haste. He borrowed money from friends to put a down payment on a small apartment building. He worked many hours and saw too little of his family. His net worth went up while his family was going down. Kevin soon began using drugs; by the age of 14 he was mainlining heroine. His drug use was discovered during a routine medical examination. Upon learning this hard fact, Lana fainted. She called her husband who told her to handle it; he was too busy working to confront what was happening to him, to them. He preferred, at first, to dream on and drown the voice which declared: "Thou fool! This day thy family is required of thee!"

But they were from a background of atheism, without Christ, without covenant, without Christian education. Not surprisingly, they turned to a secular agency for help. Through groups there, it was discovered that often, after his mother had kissed him good night and turned out the light, Kevin would sneak out of the house, go down to Alphabet City (a tough part of New York, so named because it encompasses Avenues A , B , and C on the Lower East Side), cop and use drugs, then make it home in time for his mother to come into his room in the morning and find him in bed. They would then sit together at the breakfast table, the parents being utterly clueless as to what was really happening. Literally, while they were dreaming, a nightmare was becoming their reality.

When Emil and Lana's path crossed ours through Urban Nations, the Christian teaching of their E S L instructor. Bob Ciago, began to make a mark on them. They wondered if a spiritual vacuum at home had not contributed to their son's now being in a drug program upstate. They began to attend our fellowship for immigrants each Lord's Day afternoon, began opening up to members of the church, requesting prayer, asking what they should do now, what they could dare hope for now. They were clearly wary of the secular program and its extremely limited focus. They began to develop in them a determination to get themselves right with Cod first. Smart move. Like the stewardess tells you at the beginning of each flight, "In the event of an emergency, if you're traveling with children, put the oxygen mask over your mouth first." You won't be any good to them if you're gone.

While there has been no discernible "conversion," it seems like we are looking at a work of the Lord in progress. This past Lord's Day, Lana told those gathered at the fellowship about an incident which she found to be very significant—significant as in "a sign." She was downtown Brooklyn in yet another tough area of the city. Lana's maternal concerns decided to visit her right there in public: she was overcome by deep sorrow and it apparently showed. Suddenly she noticed a group of young black men coming toward her. They approached her and expressed sincere concern. It turns out they were all Christians and, upon hearing of her grief, they gathered around Lana and prayed for her and her family, right there on the spot. (I LOVE THIS CITY!!)

As Lana related the incident to members of Messiah's Congregation, an electric charge ran through the air and there was weeping in joyous recognition of the hand of the Lord. It was becoming increasingly evident to Lana and Emil that the answers to life's difficulties are not to be found in any dream, but in the reality defined by God in Christ.

Kevin joined his parents at the fellowship for the first time. He had been allowed a short time away from his residential "treatment" program to visit his folks. He's 16 years old now, but the consensus of the very hip, very aware Christians who met him was that he is not doing well, and will almost certainly "go down" again, short of a personal intervention by our Lord.

The good news is, his parents seem to be adjusting the cells on the spreadsheet. Lana said to Emil, "We must make it our priority to be here every Sunday. This is where we belong. And if Kevin comes, good! But either way, we belong among these people."

I wish I could tell you that Emil and Lana's circumstances are unique. They are not. We are seeing many indications of cultural and moral collapse among immigrants. But such is what the church was made for: Reality. We've been equipped to work in a really sinful world to do real rebuilding that will really last. Such rebuilding is done one family at a time. Pray that this family may be added to Christ's house by faith. I'll keep you posted. And post something to us, if you can:

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* I have changed their names.

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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