Story and photos by Derek Macleod
None is too many
“None is too many.” That was the chilling (though, in the 1930s, not especially controversial) comment made by a Canadian immigration official when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada would receive.
Afraid of losing its Anglo-Christian identity and hegemony, the Canadian government turned away thousands of Jews seeking to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany. Though impossible to count, it is certain that many seeking refuge were denied and later found only cruelty and death in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Far from a history lesson about another country, this comment could as easily be heard in the United States today on any number of talk radio programs or in political speeches. If asked how the U.S. should respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, the largest forced migration of people since WWII, some respond: None is too many.
Having only received 70 thousand refugees from around the world this year, the U.S. is far outmatched by countries like Canada and Germany who have taken a lead in offering refuge to Middle Eastern peoples. (Germany is on track to receive 2 million, which is more refugees than the U.S. has welcomed in 10 years.) Consider also that when faced with the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis in 1980, the U.S. received 200,000 refugees and would eventually resettle almost 800,000.
The paucity of our nation’s current response is a crisis in itself. Becoming a refugee is a tragedy, but it is not a sin. Let us be in clear with our language and definitions: There is no refugee crisis; there is a crisis in our global solutions and responses, or lack thereof.
The U.S. is not alone, however, in its inadequate response to this current situation as other countries like Hungary, Austria, Romania and Macedonia have sealed their border with policies and razor wire fences, preventing any refugee from entering. Often, public response is quiet if not very supportive of such measures especially when an act of terror like what took place in Brussels, Orlando or, most recently, the airport in Istanbul heightens tensions and raises the specter of fear that the words terrorist and refugee are synonymous.
Yet amidst many societal concerns, both real and imagined, the flow of people has not entirely abated. Millions of Syrians are still in need of refuge as they flee a country completely besieged by violence and chaos.
As a church whose savior was a refugee and as a people who follow the one who confessed that he had no place to lay his head, people seeking refuge becomes more than a geo-political issue too complex to understand. It is a theological imperative that is impossible to ignore. There is biblical call before us as the PC(USA) that must be claimed if we are to respond to this situation with Christian love and integrity. Hearing Micah’s clarion call that the Lord requires justice, kindness and mercy, there are several themes that construct this biblical mandate to welcome refugees.
Together, these themes give voice to what could (or perhaps must) become for us a theology of refuge. Just as a young Peruvian priest in 1968 enabled the church to claim God’s preferential option for the poor in what would become a theology of liberation, so is the call upon us now to hear the prompting of the Holy Spirit to discern these needs of our time.
Close to 60 million people, almost half of them children, are without home and often without help. Yet they are never without hope because a restless, homeless God abides with them. The God of Abraham and Sarah both seeks and offers refuge. As Reformed people who bring a sacramental imagination and rigorous intellect to our expression of faith, a theology of refuge can be birthed and inspire us to think and act in this demanding time.
My father was a wandering Aramean
The biblical narrative insists (ritualizes, in fact) that God’s people keep ever before them the time when they were not a people. As rooted as we may be in our family heritage, religious tradition or geographical location, there was a time when we were not established, a time when we were other, foreign. This is as true now as it was then.
We can say: My father was a wandering Scot; my great, great grandmother was a wandering African. In tracing our roots, all of us in every place will find our beginning in another place. In a recent book about the refugee issue titled “The New Odyssey,” Patrick Kingsley notes: “The story of humanity is essentially the story of human movement. In the near future, people will move even more, particularly if, as some predict, climate change sparks mass migration on an unprecedented scale. The sooner we recognize the inevitability of this movement, the sooner we can try to manage it.”
There was a time when you needed welcome or there will be a time when you may need welcome, yet the temptation to forget and reject this reality is strong. We do not like being vulnerable. Thus God’s insistence to recall our reality becomes essential if we are to be honest, humble and fully human.
No stranger to our reluctant welcome and embrace of the other, at times the biblical narrative even supports it. Concerned with foreign influence, idol worship and a decaying of religious and cultural identity, religious leaders called upon Israel to maintain purity and fidelity and avoid anything foreign that may pollute purity and holiness. This fear was so pervasive that in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we read of a national policy that called on faithful Israelites to cast away foreign wives, a none-is-too-many antecedent.
That these texts arise out of great despair and destruction as Israel deals with exile. Its aftermath is important, as economic instability is a breeding ground for fear and scapegoating. However, we cannot dismiss the truth that our spiritual ancestors struggled with how to love and welcome the other. For example, Deuteronomy notes that while it is unlawful to charge interest to a fellow Jew, it was permissible to charge interest to a foreigner (Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 23:30).
There is some comfort in knowing that ours is not the only society to deal with these xenophobic struggles. The good news is that this is not the only voice in the canon. Amidst calls to national, cultural and religious purity (achieved in large part by eschewing the foreigner), the stories of Ruth and Jonah and proclamations from Isaiah hinge on God forgiving, loving and embracing the foreigner in order to fulfill God’s purposes.
The fear that foreign influence would destroy God’s nation is challenged as God’s purposes so often could happen only if the foreigner was included and embraced. The genealogy of our Lord Jesus in Matthew cannot exist without Ruth, a foreigner. There is no release from exile without a foreign king, proclaims Isaiah. And who was the first European Christian? A foreign (gentile) woman named Lydia. Far from excluding the foreigner, our scriptural narrative cannot be told without them.
A Syrian Presbyterian pastor, after sharing news and pictures about her home to a church group was asked, “When did your people become Christian?” She gently replied, “In the beginning! My people welcomed your people in.” Yet, we are all so sure that we were first.
Poet Wendell Berry reminds us that there is no such thing as secular, there is only sacred and desecrated. Can we not say the same about what is foreign in the kingdom of God? There are only those who have been welcomed and those needing welcomed.
The son of man has no place to lay his head
Many refugees are not poor, not in the way that grips millions of people, but most refugees are certainly bereft. Many highly educated, financially stable people give up their savings in order to procure an opportunity to leave, paying outrageous fees to smugglers. They are often taken advantage of, even being sold fake life jackets at exorbitant rates.
Leaving their home, they leave behind the means by which they earn money and financial independence. Many taxi drivers, cleaners, factory and fast food workers once taught, designed, healed, organized, presided or wrote, but can no longer exercise their vocation due to language barriers, lack of network, reputation or inability to meet contextual regulatory requirements.
The poor and vulnerable are not ignored in the Bible. On the contrary, to the poor’s surprise and our shock, theirs is the kingdom of God. But the poor (and this includes Jesus) rely on the goodness and generosity of others. The Gospels place Jesus in many homes and at many different tables, but none of them were his own. It was kindness extended and hospitality offered that allowed for the living of his life and the sharing of the gospel.
The economics of the Kingdom are such, however, that the poor do not only receive but are also bearers of gifts. Theologian Jon Sobrino provocatively suggests that there is no salvation outside the poor, for they uniquely offer an antidote to unfettered capitalism and greed that can choke our life with God. How many have gone on a mission trip and discovered that living amongst the poor they felt rich in joy and spirit? Not to romanticize the plight of the poor, it is important to note that no one is without something to offer and contribute.
To welcome those who are poor amongst us is to seize the opportunity to learn to live with less while also discovering that there is more than enough to be shared. To recognize that the poor have something to offer is a necessary realization in order to overcome our fear that refugees (the poor) can and will only take away jobs, money and resources from the rest of us. In God’s good world there is enough for all. Problems never arise when God’s people share only when they hoard.
On a recent trip with former PC(USA) moderator Heath Rada that followed the path of refugees in Europe, several of us had the opportunity to visit Idomeni, an unofficial camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia where 12,000 refugees were stuck, unable to find refuge in either country. It was a place of chaos with hastily set up tents, open fires for cooking and warmth and a sea of people unsure of their fate.
A few days before we arrived, a man had immolated himself in a desperate attempt to bring world attention to their plight and conditions. We were there with a van full of supplies and with eyes wanting to witness and understand what was happening. As we made our way through the area trying to locate leadership, we stopped for a while and spoke with two young Syrian men. Very casually one man offered us a cigarette. Such a normal, simple act from one man to another. We didn’t take the cigarette, but the power of the moment was not lost on us. Even the poorest can give and teach us to do the same.
Even the sparrow finds a home, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts
There is no such thing as a professional refugee. Even when some are born in refugee camps and it is all they know for years, there is an innate desire and expectation in every one of us to have a home and a community. We need a place of welcome and protection in order to grow and thrive. By definition, a “refugee” is someone forced to leave their home for their own protection; but given the opportunity and a change in the situation that provoked the departure, most refugees want to return to their home and to what is familiar.
In a conversation with a young man from Syria who now lives in Hungary, a man who was arrested and tortured for posting an anti-government comment on his Facebook page, tears arose in eyes as he described his former home in Aleppo. “You should see my country, it is beautiful at every time of the day.” His dreams of owning and working an orchard are gone, but his longing for home will not ever disappear.
Recognizing the universal longing for home, the opportunity before us is to help make a home for refugees. Or, to paraphrase, charity begins with a home. To help others feel at home in our country is to help make our country their home. To welcome is to create future proud Americans.
Already, thousands of Syrian children have been out of school for five years and the impact upon generations is a cost yet untold. Imagine what could be gained, what ideas generated, what tragedies prevented if homes for these lost children were established and education provided. It would literally change the world.
In Berlin, Germany, a church worker responsible for running a temporary shelter for 300 refugees overheard two Arab men eating and one turned and said, “I don’t know why they are treating us like this. We have learned that Christians are dogs.” While this opinion is not representative of all 300 of those refugees, our ability and willingness to welcome and embrace the other challenges many people’s assumptions and helps this world repent and heal. If we exclude others for fear that our Christian identity is at risk, our Christian identity is already gone.
If you have two coats, give one away
Welcoming is hard work. The world is not always kind and refugees are not all lovable, honest or decent. Such is the reality of our humanity. We are not naive to the evil in our world, but we are not hostage to it either. We renounce evil in Christ’s name and in Christ’s name we also seek to love our enemies and befriend those who are in need. It is work that is worth our pain and sacrifices. But it is not easy.
Our group had to leave Idomeni rather abruptly as our plan to distribute needed supplies went afoul with so many people in need. As we hastily boarded the van, I felt a tug on my vest. I turned around to see a young boy make the gesture for shivering and pointed to my vest. As I thought about his ask and my options, people on the van were shouting for me to get in the van. I felt the boy tug again at my vest. My passport was in one pocket along with some money, the other pocket had my phone. My travel companions insisted I get in the van immediately for the safety of everyone. The boy shivered and pointed to my vest.
I got in the van and we drove away not stopping until we reached Athens several hours later where we could deposit supplies in a less chaotic environment. How could I not have given my vest away? If I couldn’t do the right thing at that time and place, what hope do I — or any of us — have so far away from those who are seeking, asking and knocking? It will take a God willing to make our hearts God’s home in order for us make a home for others in our hearts.
Derek James Macleod is associate pastor of mission and outreach at Myers Park Presbyterian in Charlotte, North Carolina. Derek recently joined the PC(USA) from the Presbyterian Church in Canada.