This weekend’s featured sermon is by Rev. Omar Rikabi, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.
This weekend’s featured sermon is by Rev. Omar Rikabi, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.
Today’s post is written alongside others delving into the moral, ethical, and biblical ramifications of the current practice in the United States of separating immigrant parents from their children. In it, we include reflections on the plight of children in the Old Testament; the plight of families in the Western hemisphere; and the ways in which Jesus, a Messiah who saw the suffering of families, stretched his followers’ moral imaginations.
It is also written with consciousness that this is not the first time parents and children in the United States have been separated from each other, as the history of Native Americans and the Black slave trade demonstrate.
Please feel free to share today’s post with the hashtags #notwithoutmychild and #familiesbelongtogether.
Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. – Exodus 2:1-6
I do not think I’ve ever heard someone preach on the compassion of Pharoah’s daughter. She also strikes me as a savvy woman. She came face to face with a squalling infant who was suffering because of her father’s decree to kill the Hebrew infants and toddlers who could potentially pose a future threat to the Egyptian way of life. She probably surmised precisely who the young girl was half-hidden in the reeds near the basket. She knew it was a Hebrew baby; here was a nearby young girl. Not only did Moses’ birth mother get to raise him while he was young, she was now paid to do so. Yes, Pharoah’s daughter was compassionate, and savvy.
I don’t know if she was able to intervene in the fate of other little baby boys; maybe she saved the one she could. Maybe she was haunted by the fates of the ones she couldn’t.
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid;God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. – Genesis 21:14-20
Hagar didn’t ask to sleep with Abraham. She was a servant, and Sarah, impatient and distrustful of God’s promise, lent her to Abraham. But Sarah couldn’t put away her jealousy of Hagar’s son, even after having her own. She wanted Hagar to go. Hagar didn’t get autonomy over her own body, and once she had a son, the injustices continued. With no secure future, she was sent away.
Yet what a tender passage we encounter: she is sobbing, she cannot bear the notion of watching her son die. And this little slave woman and her beloved son do not escape God’s notice. What’s the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid.
Later, Pharoah’s daughter will hear a young one crying and feel sorry for him. Here, God hears a young one crying under a bush, and responds as well.
The king asked, “Is there no one still alive from the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?”
Ziba answered the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is lame in both feet.” So King David had him brought from Lo Debar, from the house of Makir son of Ammiel. When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor. David said, “Mephibosheth!” “At your service,” he replied.
“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.” Mephibosheth bowed down and said, “What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?”
Then the king summoned Ziba, Saul’s steward, and said to him, “I have given your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. You and your sons and your servants are to farm the land for him and bring in the crops, so that your master’s grandson may be provided for. And Mephibosheth, grandson of your master, will always eat at my table.”
And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet. – II Samuel 9:3-13
Mephibosheth was five years old when the news about his dad and granddad came. While David was mourning the loss of his best friend, Jonathan, Jonathan’s son was being spirited away by his nurse, to protect him in the political upheaval; but in her hurry, Mephibosheth fell and was disabled the rest of his life: the little boy’s feet would never work again. On top of the tragedy of his father dying, he would equate receiving the news with the loss of being able to properly run, jump, and play.
Mephibosheth was a child of tragedy and grief, through no fault of his own. He didn’t ask to be in the middle of political upheaval; he didn’t choose his family, he wasn’t old enough to weigh in on their decisions.
But David wants to “show God’s kindness” to any lingering survivors of Saul’s line. He restores property; he ensures income and livelihood; he bestows honor by issuing a standing invitation to supper, any time. David can’t erase Mephibosheth’s past, but he can ensure a future of dignity and safety. And he can make sure that Mephibosheth’s family is provided for.
The cries of other sons had been heard by God, had been heard by a Pharoah’s daughter. David went searching for a child whose cries had faded, if the injuries to spirit and body had not.
In a basket; under a bush; in the arms of a nurse.
The lost children of the Old Testament were not overlooked by God.
Currently in the United States of America, immigrant parents are being separated from their children. No law requires this.
It can be difficult for American citizens with quick access to WiFi to imagine life with dubious communication connections; frequently immigrants to the United States have incomplete or inaccurate information about what lies ahead, what policies they will face, how much money they’ll have to pay to whom.
Some parents are trying to get their kids away from cartel violence, food shortages, and political upheaval. In Venezuela, children are starving to death. In Guatemala, the raid of one workplace in the U.S. can directly affect the sustenance of an entire village.
In a time when Americans often suffer compassion fatigue, seeing footage of wildfires and hurricanes, volcano eruptions and war, school shootings and tragedy, we are called to step back and reflect. Frequently in the Gospels we read of a Messiah gone AWOL: frustrated disciples search high and low, scout around town, attempting to find Jesus. In these moments, he had always withdrawn to pray in quiet away from the frequent chaos that surrounded him.
When Jesus encountered people swept up in debate or confusion about ethics or religious laws or the will of God, he invited them into the insight and truth he centered on in those times of prayer. Often, he met their questions with stories.
“Who is my neighbor?”
“Once, a man was traveling…”
In these teaching moments, Jesus was stretching the moral imaginations of his hearers. He took them from a narrow question to a broad principle, by way of illustrating vivid characters. Jesus’ responses may as well have been prefaced with the phrase, “imagine this…”
Over on First Things, Jonathan Jones describes the strengths and virtues of moral imagination: “a uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow humanity as moral beings and as persons, not as objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.” This is a profound challenge: to conceive of other humans as persons, not as objects useful or unuseful to us. Neighbor implies valuable personhood, not just asset or liability. To be fully human, Jones posits, is, “to embrace the duties and obligations toward a purpose of security and endurance for, first and foremost, the family and the local community.”
This personhood is woven in the most essential fabric of human existence, the family. To deny family is to deny personhood. To deny personhood is to relegate people to existence as asset or liability in a ledger. But to deny recognition of personhood to another is also to undermine our own humanity, because, as Jones asserts, moral imagination is a uniquely human ability.
Jesus was a Messiah who saw families: frantic parents like Jairus asked him to heal their children; young kids offered their fish Happy Meals to him, which he happily multiplied and fed the masses with. When the disciples tried to remind parents how important Jesus was, he stopped them, and said, “let the little kids come over.” To stuffy adults, he sternly reminded them that to enter the Kingdom of God, one had to become like a child.
Jesus constantly reframed the questions his followers threw at him. He challenged the edges of their imagination, coaxing them to a place of empathy. Imagine this, he’d say: your neighbor is the Samaritan you fear who saves you from robbers on a barren road and pays for your recovery; maybe the person you distrust will be the means of your survival. Maybe the dynamic between you will be turned upside-down and you’ll end up receiving, not just sacrificing and giving.
Today, what do we as Christians believe about who God is?
We see that God cares about moms and children who have had an unfair life and are left out in the cold without resources.
We see that God allowed a savvy, compassionate woman and a completely vulnerable infant to encounter each other in a river in ancient Egypt, restoring the baby to his worried mama and preparing him for leadership later.
We see that God intersected David’s life in such a way that David knew and trusted God’s kindness and wanted to show God’s kindness to the devastated survivors of warfare, a family ripped apart at the seams.
We see that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, valued the personhood of sons and daughters, moms and dads, and saw their lives as valuable and worth intervention.
We see that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, constantly pivoted questions away from the concerns of the asker and toward the concerns of those being asked about. Jesus Christ celebrated the humanity, the personhood, of those who were deemed a liability.
In continuity with God-who-heard-a-child-crying-under-a-bush, in continuity with God-who-made-his-way-to-the-dying-daughter-of-Jairus, today, we affirm that families matter to God; that children have personhood and value, and that to willfully separate parents from their children and children from their parents is to deface our own “uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow humanity as moral beings and as persons, not as objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.”
We affirm the beauty of parenthood, the value of childhood, and the imperative to honor both. We appreciate the parenthood of Mary and Joseph, the childhood of the toddler Jesus, and the care Jesus extended to his mother while he was dying by crucifixion.
We grieve violence, food shortage, corruption of leaders, and lack of infrastructure that places families in the impossible scenario of weighing whether their children will be safer in their home towns or migrating to a new place. We agree with Jesus that it would be better to have a millstone around the neck and to be thrown into the sea than to deliberately hurt and harm a child.
We pray that a robust vision of the value of human life will prevail over short-term practices that separate kids from their dads and moms. We pray that a holistic value of human life will stretch from dangerous school hallways to full social services for impoverished pregnant women, from holistic crisis pregnancy centers to bleak nursing home hallways, from law enforcement encounters with people of color to immigrant detention centers.
We reject notions that ease us into giving up our moral imaginations, like the necessity of evil “for the greater good,” the necessity of social “collateral damage,” the necessity of inflicting damage on others’ families in order to prevent potential future harm on our own.
We condemn the use of human lives as pawns in political maneuvering when done by any portion of the political spectrum. We celebrate expressions of immigration policy that maintain the dignity and God-given value of every individual human life.
We know that the government of the United States is separate from any one religious body. But we pray that current and future government officials and representatives will recall the ethical principles at work in many world religions and that often guide our common life together in the public square of our democratic republic. Our grand experiment in the United States cannot succeed without a robust appreciation of individual personhood existing in the fabric of family.
And so, we stand, sit, and kneel with those who are crying for their children and their parents; we pray for peace, stability, and opportunity in their home countries; and we pray for wisdom for the leaders who have the power and the moment to create humane policies, if they will only have the imagination to do so.
“That experience is like a brand between my shoulder blades.”
Salvation Army Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Pho described his trauma as an asylum seeker from Vietnam in vivid terms during the first session of the Global Interactive Summit on Refugees and Displaced Peoples, hosted by the International Social Justice Commission of the Salvation Army. Today he is the National Director for Multicultural Ministries in the Salvation Army in Australia.
Throughout the day (or night, depending on your global location) today, Monday, 29 January, and tomorrow, Tuesday, 30 January, you can view the summit on Facebook on The Salvation Army International Social Justice Commission page, where sessions are live-streamed.
The purpose of the virtual gathering is, “to mobilize people of faith to engage with one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our age – refugees and displaced people. The focus of the summit will celebrate what has been achieved and reflect on lessons learned to guide future action.”
Other profound speakers joined the summit via video chat from locations like Hong Kong and London while the Director of the Salvation Army Social Justice Commission, Lt. Col. Dean Pallant, chaired the virtual gathering from New York City. Viewers included people from locations like Australia, North America, and the refugee hot spot, the Greek island of Lesbos.
Session One particularly revolved around the topic of “The Theology of Migration and Reception,” with a blend of theological, pragmatic, and personal insights from contributors like Dr. Laurelle Smith who works with U.N. committees and NGOs; Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Pho mentioned above; the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, author and vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London; Dr. Russell Rook, partner with Good Faith Partnerships; and Lieutenant-Colonel Wendy Swan, who works in Hong Kong and Macau and recently completed her Ph.D. on a theology of protest.
Continuing 90-minute sessions are available to view live on the Facebook page today, 29 January, and tomorrow, 30 January. Topics include, “Reflecting on Experience,” “Working with Governments, Other Faith Groups, and NGOs in Refugee and Migration Situations,” “Camp and Community Based Responses,” “Church Based Responses,” and “Tackling Critical Issues.”
Sessions from the global interactive summit will also be archived and made available for viewing later.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Recently Wesleyan Accent Editor Elizabeth Glass Turner chatted with Rev. Zach Szmara, the founder of one of the first immigration legal clinics within a church building, about sanctuary, immigration law, and cross-cultural ministry at home. Rev. Szmara is the Lead Pastor of The Bridge in Logansport, Indiana, a congregation within The Wesleyan Church. He is the National Director of Immigrant Connection – a growing network of over 14 church-based legal sites – and has provided immigration legal services experience to over 150 church leaders from a variety of denominations.
Wesleyan Accent: What are some of the most common questions you encounter from clergymembers who are uncertain about whether or how – or whether – to integrate immigration-related ministries in their congregation?
Zach Szmara: People wonder if it’s legal or not to serve immigrants. The reality is that we’re providing immigration legal services – which means we’re using the immigration law as it is currently written to help people navigate through the process if there is a pathway for them. Many times there is a pathway, but it is complex and confusing. So in the same way many people utilize a professional tax preparer because tax law is complicated and they want to make sure they pay whatever taxes they are legally supposed to (not more, not less), we do the same thing for immigrants – we help them navigate a complicated legal pathway.
Furthermore, I remind people that some of the church’s best moments have been when we’ve advocated for, learned from, and stood with marginalized people who were caught up within unjust systems – so while it’s not illegal to serve immigrants, even if it were I believe we should still do it (think of the church and the Underground Railroad).
If starting a full legal office doesn’t make sense within the church’s context, some great first steps are to preach on immigrants and immigration, to lead a small group study (we have materials we recommend), or to start a citizenship class.
WA: You’re not a lawyer. How can you have a legal clinic?
ZS: The short answer is that the Department of Justice opened a pathway in the 1980’s so that through a nonprofit an individual can receive training (education) and shadowing (experience) in immigration law. Then she or he can apply to the Department of Justice, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the legal site receives recognition while the individual receives accreditation to practice immigration legal services.
The training (education) part can be done two ways. Most choose to attend a 40-hour training event, so it literally takes one week onsite. Then the individual can do several other webinars on their own. The second way is an online course which usually takes place over a few months. I recommend the 40-hour training personally. The shadowing (experience) part can be done by volunteering a number of hours at an existing site over several months or doing one of our Immigrant Connection Shadowing Experiences – which gain is one full week (40 hours) of intensive experiential learning.
So if someone does 40-hour training and 40-hour shadowing, they can be ready to go within weeks, and then it usually takes about a month to put together the application packet and they can apply for recognition and accreditation. It usually takes about three months for all three governmental offices to review the application and approve it.
We’ve had local churches decide to launch a site and go through the process in as quick as five to six months from start to approval.
So we cannot do everything an attorney can do, but within the area of immigration law, we can legally provide legal services. I’m not a full-fledged attorney – I cannot do family law or criminal defense or any other area of law – just immigration.
WA: What are two or three facts that pastors should know about sanctuary, immigration law, and local engagement?
ZS: Many times pastors don’t realize that it’s illegal to practice law without a license, so they aren’t able to help immigrants with any paperwork or forms unless they take courses and get accredited by the Department of Justice. It’s best for them to find and partner with a recognized site – you can find them here (https://www.immigrationadvocates.org/nonprofit/legaldirectory/ or download the Immigo app).
When it comes to sanctuary, there is no form to fill out to become a sanctuary site. ICE has said that they will refrain from engaging in enforcement operations at schools, medical and health care facilities, places of worship, and during public demonstrations such as marches and rallies. In other words, all local churches are safe places and sanctuaries for immigrants.
The sanctuary movement is different and historically focused on garnering media and community attention for an individual or family who would be deported if a church didn’t step in to try to get the story of the individual or family heard, helping the community to rally behind them in the hopes an immigration judge may grant discretionary relief.
Finally, I remind all pastors that they don’t know what they don’t know; many people have ideas about immigrants and immigration that are unfounded. It’s important to realize that many of the key phrases utilized (“wait in line like my family did” or “illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes and steal our jobs”) are inaccurate. The “line” is radically different than when many peoples’ families immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Even if there is a “line” (and many times there isn’t) the wait is over 10-20 years long.
WA: What’s the cost of starting an immigration law clinic in a church?
ZS: It depends on the network, denomination, and organization that the church partners with. The Wesleyan Church is unique in that we launch Immigrant Connection sites for $5,000-$7,000 – but we are definitely at the lowest end of the spectrum. We focus on churches doing this as a ministry and start by staffing sites with focused volunteers. If a site needs to pay overhead costs and staff salaries – the starting cost raises substantially.
WA: What’s an example of some of the impact you’ve had?
ZS: There is no short example: our legal sites have impacted over 80 different countries. We reunite families, we help students have the ability to attend college, we help immigrants who were victims of crime find redemption of the very worst thing that occurred to them and receive a legal pathway forward, we help refugees become legal permanent residents, we help legal permanent residents become citizens, we help international pastors receive R visas to pastor churches and plant churches in the U.S., we have front-row seats to watch God transform lives and bring hope and a future into areas that are filled with animosity, confusion, and hopelessness.
WA: Many churches have separate worship services based on language. Why don’t you? Isn’t that awkward? How does it work logistically? What’s the benefit?
ZS: I’m glad in heaven there will only be one worship service even though it will be made up of people from different cultures, ethnicities, and languages. While it may work to break up ethnicities, cultures, and languages in certain contexts, I feel my community has diversity in our schools, hospitals, banks, gyms, shopping centers – why not in church too?
When we segregate services based on languages, we break up immigrant and refugee families in which one generation leans into one language but the next generation leans into another language. We also separate the majority population from learning from the minority population – and there is so much that white, English-speaking Christians need to learn from the immigrant, non-English speaking population.
It is awkward and it is hard and it is complicated and it is uncomfortable – but our goal is that it’s just as uncomfortable for a white English speaker as it is for a Spanish-speaking Latino. For too long we’ve had the wrong goal when it comes to multi-ethnic churches: what we’ve created is “multi-colored” white churches. In other words, these churches are very mono-cultural; it’s easy to attend as a white person because everything is still your worship style, your cultural way of doing things. You’re not uncomfortable in the least and you feel good because people of other ethnicities have assimilated to your way of doing things, so you can pat yourself on the back because there are different colors present in your worship.
But the goal for us is not assimilation but to be truly multi-cultural, which means everyone will be uncomfortable and confused at different times, everyone will have to give up a part of their preferences to be a part of our church.
The benefit for me is that I believe I’m called to build for Jesus’ kingdom – that I’m called to create signposts that point to Jesus, to his hope and his future – and I believe his kingdom coming means diversity. There will be multiple languages and cultural differences and multiple ethnicities in heaven (at least there were in John’s revelation of eternity) and so I don’t want to create some monocultural unity or sameness. I want to create a rich, diverse togetherness that is unity, but is not uniformity.
Recently Wesleyan Accent was able to chat with Youth Specialist Josh White about his role in caring for unaccompanied alien children who arrive in the United States. He also operates EQ Roasters, a small fair-trade coffee roasting enterprise aimed at encouraging economic stability in nations from which many unaccompanied minors come. An avid musician, his work can be found here. He and his wife attend City Life Church, a multicultural Wesleyan church plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Wesleyan Accent: You have a degree in music. How did you get involved with working with immigrants?
Josh White: I majored in music theory and composition at Indiana Wesleyan University, which I knew was more of a career/life-style degree than a “job” degree. For about two and a half years after graduating, I worked in the shipping department of a crafting goods warehouse, and was absolutely miserable. One of my close friends knew that I was looking for a new job, and put in a good word for me at a residential home that served UAC (unaccompanied alien children) teenagers. I interviewed, got the job, and started working.
That’s how I got into working with immigrants, but what kept me there was the fact that it allowed me to live out the values of Christ every day. I was able to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the orphan, and welcome the stranger! What more could you ask for?
WA: What’s the general age range of the immigrants or refugees with whom you work? Where are some the places they’ve come from? What are some of the common reasons they’ve arrived in the United States?
JW: I mostly work with 16 to 18-year-old boys that come from all over the world. Our largest demographics are Central American and African teens. Most of the boys who we serve are fleeing gang violence or extreme poverty. Typically, the boys from the cities are fleeing violence, whereas the boys from the rural areas are fleeing extreme poverty and coming to the United States to work and send money home to their families who are struggling to survive.
WA: What’s a “typical” day like with someone who is really only a kid but who is living in a new country away from their family members, language, etc.?
JW: Most days it is easy to forget what most of these young men have been through in their short lives. They are teenagers and often act like teenagers, but rarely if ever show any behaviors that aren’t commonly exhibited by domestic teenagers. The language barrier is a universal theme within the home, but some boys handle it well and view it as motivation to learn and grow, and others can become discouraged because learning a new language is very difficult and takes a lot of work.
The family issue is one that really breaks my heart and that I wish more Americans could understand. Generally speaking, a lot of immigrants do not come to the United States because they just want to become rich or have a better life for themselves. People do not just leave everything they know and love for no reason. Immigration is not the problem. Global instability is the problem. These teens would never have left their families, their homes or their countries if they did not have to leave to survive or to provide.
This is why I have started a coffee company called EQ Roasters, and it is our mission to help stabilize communities around the world by paying them fair prices for their coffee and helping them become economically stable through their work, not through foreign aid. All coffees that we offer were purchased from the farmers or co-ops at at least 150% of Fair Trade prices.
WA: When unaccompanied minors age out of your care, where are they able to land, so to speak? Where do they go from there?
JW: Our program’s entire purpose is to teach our boys independent living skills so that they can survive on their own in the United States. Once a boy graduates our program, he is able to go to either independent living or semi-independent living which is somewhere between living on your own and living in foster care. Once they leave our program they stay within the larger program and still have a case manager who follows up with them on things like school, health, legal status, etc. The boys receive small stipends to help pay for housing and food as long as they continue to go to school or get a job in which they work full-time.
WA: What’s been one of the most surprising things about the work you do? What are the most common misconceptions? Have you ever received negative feedback about helping immigrants?
JW: The most surprising thing to me should not have been surprising at all, and that is that these boys are incredibly resilient. Oftentimes, they have lost everything, and yet they keep going. They keep fighting to make a new life. They are driven to make the most of the opportunities that they have been given.
I think that one of the most common misconceptions is that people who came over illegally are criminals. The sad truth is that emigrating to the U.S. legally is incredibly difficult for most, and simply impossible for others. When you have a gang that tells you, “Join us or die,” what do you expect them to do? Do you want them to be another teen forced into the gang life? Or should they just sacrifice their life for refusing to join the gangs?
I have never personally received negative feedback for working with this population, but I know that we have received some negative feedback from the community for the work that we do. I have had to have a lot of educational conversations with people, because most of us are just misinformed until we start working with the issues directly.
WA: What about young immigrants and refugees gives you hope?
JW: The characteristic of young immigrants that gives me the most hope for the future is their desire to give back. In a nation full of people who are concerned with getting their share, there is an entire group of young people that already has more than they could have ever hoped for, and now they want to use what they have been given to help others.
I thought I knew the extent of the refugee crisis until I was invited to a gathering of Christian leaders to discuss how Christians can better respond. Turns out there’s a lot I didn’t know. I’m betting I’m not the only one, so here are three significant bits of info:
The numbers are staggering. 59.9 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide.
Never have so many people been recorded as being displaced, put in danger and forced to move. Globally, 1 in every 122 humans are classified as refugees, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If we put them all in one place, they would be the 24th largest country in the world (right behind Italy.)
Half of all people displaced by political and military conflicts are children. That’s almost 30 million kids.
Refugees possess the image of God and therefore are infinitely valuable to God.
All persons, regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, or religion, are made in God’s image. It is precisely because we bear God’s image that every human has inherent worth and that every person, regardless of nationality or any other differentiating marker, deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Because refugees are infinitely valuable to God, they are (or should be) infinitely valuable to us.
As Christians, number three must always provide the foundation for our decision-making regarding refugees. If this truth is not enough, we would do well to recall – especially in these days after Christmas – that the Gospels tell us about Jesus as a refugee child, whose family was forced to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a murderous monarch.
This is not an easy issue and governments are rightfully responsible for matters of security.
But we are not the government – we are the body of Christ.
And as the body of Christ we are called to care for the hurting, embrace the stranger among us, and show the love of Jesus to those in desperate need. This is what Jesus did; he cared compassionately for the vulnerable and brought peace to those in despair.
Our calendars have moved beyond Christmas and we wind our way toward Epiphany, the season that marks the arrival of the magi to worship Jesus. With the arrival of the Magi, came the warning to Joseph to flee, to become a refugee seeking protection and safety in a foreign land.
In the midst of this dramatic human crisis, that must be the starting point for our reflection.
***Christians are coming together to address ways in which we can respond to this unprecedented crisis. Here are two links for more information:
I have an almost daily battle with my six-year-old daughter to get dressed for school.
This morning it was her sneakers. She calls them her happy shoes. She can put them on herself, and even tie them. But she always wants “Daddy to do it.”
And I do. I always do.
She’s my firstborn. My princess… because that’s what we named her. The day we came home from the hospital, I called my dad on speakerphone so he could talk to her. He worked in Egypt and Syria, so this was how they would have to meet. Before I put the phone down by her head, he asked me, “What did you name her?”
“What does it mean, this Sadie?”
“In what language does it mean princess?”
There was a small pause, as his Iraqi culture of the father choosing an Arab name for his children tried to process this.
“Hebrew?…. Let me talk to her.”
After I got sneakers on her feet and her feet to school, I listened to NPR while eating breakfast and heard the story of a boy.
A small refugee boy who drowned fleeing Syria in a raft crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
He wasn’t the only one. Thousands have died like this… of the millions in Syria and Iraq driven from their homes by war.
But a photo of the boy went viral, and NPR interviewed Peter Boukhaert for Human Rights Watch:
“What really touched me in the photo was the little sneakers… One of my favorite moments each day is to dress my boys before they go to school. I saw those little sneakers and I realized that his parents had dressed him that morning for a very difficult journey.”
My wife and I have a policy of not listening to or watching stories of dead children. We can’t think about it.
But as I listened, I dared myself to look for the picture of this boy. And as I looked at him… facedown in the sand and surf, dressed in a red shirt, blue shorts, and his little velcro sneakers… Bouckhaert continued:
“Aylan was his name. He was age three.”
He had a name.
This was not a photo of a body. This was a photo of a boy.
And he had a name.
Against my wife’s better judgment, I’ve been looking at Aylan all day.
I can feel his parents putting on his shorts. His shirt. His shoes.
Did they fuss with him to stay still and get dressed, trying to stay calm for his sake, trying to hide the urgency in their voice?
Did he get all dressed up, only then needing to go potty?
Did they make up a story of an adventure so he wouldn’t be scared?
I can hear the mixture of love and frustration a parent has when dressing their child, calling his name over and over again to be still.
Because he had a name.
The first name given in creation was Adam. It means humanity.
The Scripture story tells us that God, through Jesus Christ, created all of humanity in his image and breathed into us the breath of life.
I thought of Adam when I saw the first hashtag given to Aylan’s story: Humanity Washed Ashore.
I’m a minister of the gospel that calls Jesus the new Adam: The Son of God who died and rose from the grave to rescue all of humanity. And though I’ve preached, written, and told countless stories about this gospel of peace for the Middle East, before this morning I’d grown numb: Why can I tell you more about the impact of Tom Brady’s reinstatement on my Dallas Cowboys in week 4 than I can about the backstory that led to Aylan’s death?
Later, NPR updated the piece and told the father’s story. I had to dare myself to read it:
“The Turk smuggler jumped into the sea, then a wave came and flipped us over. I grabbed my sons and wife and we held onto the boat,” Mr. Kurdi said, speaking slowly in Arabic and struggling at times for words.
“We stayed like that for an hour, then the first son died and I left him so I can help the other, then the second died, so I left him as well to help his mom and found her dead… What do I do… I spent three hours waiting for the coast guard to come. The life jackets we were wearing were all fake… I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms.”
He had a name.
Why did his father choose Aylan? What does it mean, this Aylan?
His father’s name is Abdullah.
His big brother’s name was Ghalib.
His mother’s name was Rehan.
Abdullah was a barber. He cut hair. That was his honest day’s labor. But how did Abdullah and Rehan meet? When did they know they were in love? Where was their first kiss? What did they feel when she became pregnant for the first time? What happened when they brought their firstborn home?
Now we know their names. But what was their whole story?
Because they all have names.
They all have stories.
The same name and story as you and me.
I dare you to get to know them.
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