Today we received an email from our Bishop on ways that we can help the Syrian refugee crisis, and truly they were all good ideas. Ann Voskamp of A Holy Experience also published a comprehensive list.
Today I talked with a dear friend of mine, and he said that while he can’t disagree with what I write he thinks that more people should try to ride the line, strive to be less conservative or liberal and to see all points of view. I agree with that, and what I thought of later (because I am bad at conversation when I’ve been sitting in my new office nook all day) was that I am holding that line.
We learned in our confirmation classes that we are called to hold taught the ropes that bind the church and the world to each other. To create this sacred and holy space, and at the same time to sweat over meals in soup kitchens, go down into the trenches and actually see the misery that lives among us. Because sometimes just bearing witness to it is all we can do.
The one idea that I can’t really get onboard with is the social media campaign of #refugeesweclome. I’ve done this, I’ve walked this road. Let me tell you some things.
We settled a family fleeing North Sudan here in good old West Michigan last winter. What is really easy is to see need and think, oh I could do that. I could help those people, or those cats, or those dogs; if I truly wanted to, I could save everyone who needs saving. I’ve said, so many times, they can all come to my house, we will eat and drink and make merry and live happily ever after. Thankfully the idea of a litter of puppies always is vetted before I act on something like this. 900 square feet and a triangle of a lawn are not conducive to a dog rescue, pure as my intention may be.
When we first heard about our Sudanese family everyone was excited, thrilled to be doing something, making our mark on a cruel world. What followed was a long, slow trip up a sand dune on a hot day. It never stopped, it never ended.
One woman now handles the majority of the needs of this family, and that isn’t fair, but it is true. The rest of us? The whole group who were so excited to make this happen? We realized, in varying times and places, what an ORDEAL this was going to be.
(I would like to point out at this time that I have been interrupted three times in the last four minutes.)
I imagine how their first night was in their new house, lovingly put together by me and some volunteers. We made the beds with sheets I washed in my own washing machine, we put all the freshly washed towels in the linen cupboard, decided which drawer the new silverware should go in. We worked late into the night moving furniture, unpacking the deep deep love that filled boxes and bags of donated items.
I wasn’t there that night, the night they came in on a flight to a snowy and cold Grand Rapids. I wasn’t there on that sometimes awkward car ride back to West Michigan, where it became apparent that the level of English spoken had been, shall we say, exaggerated. I wasn’t there when they first saw their new home, how the snow sparkled as it drifted into the beams of the street lamps, the small lights we’d left burning to welcome them in.
I wonder how it was that night. I wonder how they felt once all of those who were so willing to help finally left. Were there tears? Was the fear still there? Did they all sleep in the same bed?
Germany has pledged to take 800,000 refugees in a system that is already providing health care to its country. Several South American countries, the Balkans, France, have all offered to take people in. America has decided we can take about 10,000. And for once I would say that that is wisdom. For once I would say that someone who has done this before is helping make policy.
Because we are not even one year in and the commitment of time and resources is something we have lost the ability to count. Because we have tried to settle people who are completely new to our culture, our language, even our climate. Because we are not yet a country that offers universal health care, and because we have so many problems taking care of the poor and underserved already. It is one thing to heroically proclaim that we will take hundreds of thousands of people, and quite another to feed them, house them, find them jobs, help them learn English; make them believe that summer really will come and they have not been abandoned to a desolate and snowy waste land. Because we had never done this before. Because we simply did not know the obstacles that would need to be overcome.
It’s all fine and good to post yet another Instagram photo with a neatly lettered sign and a hashtag designed to capture the attention of the State Department; it is quite another to carry a queen size bed up two narrow flights of stairs. To finally look down at your own small hands that ever more full of the things your own family needs and to know that you just can’t give as much as you thought you could. It is a defeating feeling my friends.
I am not saying that these people do not deserve asylum, nor am I saying that the work is just too hard so forget it. I am saying that it is a very serious thing to take responsibility for a family that doesn’t speak your language, whose skills and training will most likely not carry over into a new country. It is a courageous and a tremendous undertaking, but not for the faint of heart. This is work that needs to be done by people who are truly called to it, and people who are experienced in refugee resettlement. And yet, now that many of our group have gained that experience, we are not sure it is something we could again without a much larger body of support.
I was struck tonight by a news story, the reporter walking through the refugee camp we have all seen, the one that stretches for miles in every direction, with it’s dirt paths and housing made of white tarps or scrap plywood or cardboard. In the background, while the anchor was reporting, a man walked in, inspected a piece of abandoned wood, picked it up and walked away with it. The same anchor spoke to a woman in the camp with her husband and six children. She said that she would die ten million deaths before she would allow her children to come to harm, ten million deaths. The family has been living in a space roughly the size of my small bedroom.
The difference is that my small bedroom has two large windows, and it has carpet and a large soft bed. It has white curtains that jump and dance in the breeze. Their small room had a dirt floor and a tarp for a door, and that is about all.
The situation is desperate, but wisdom is required when entering into the care of souls.
The dignity of every human being deserves to be respected, but forethought is needed.
We cannot run blindly into a situation, a desperation we have never experienced. We will run just as quickly out of it. And where are those people, once we have discovered that we have no knack for driving people to the grocery store or ESL class, for attending parent teacher conferences, driving to and from job interviews, helping to interpret food benefits. Where will those families be once we decide that we really have no aptitude and must walk away?
Tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11, marking 14 years since that morning of utter sorrow and devastation. And to the men and women in our government who would live in fear that terrorists would be smuggled in under the guise of refugees I can only shake my head. We can’t live that way. We cannot deny the need of the world in the interest of protecting ourselves, we cannot live in fear.
I don’t know what the answers are, I am pretending to be the canary in the coalmine, trying to tell you that this is harder than it looks, harder than you think it will be. But we can do hard things.
I am off to deacon school again this weekend, readings done, homework turned in. I proofed the bulletin for this Sunday, saw what will be going on at church here at home. The Blessing of the Backpacks, one of my favorite hymns, new service music, the first choir Sunday of the season.
I sat in rehearsal on Wednesday night amidst new faces and familiar ones and it was all I could do to hold it together. I wish this wasn’t so hard for me, and I cannot tell you why it is without submitting to what would be possibly years of therapy (and I don’t need to know that badly, it is what it is). We sang the Near setting of the Gloria and the Agnus Dei, sang a new choral introit.
When it was all done we lined up again in the back of the nave and John was at the piano, we watched him, we watched him, and then we all opened our mouths and sang. Because this is what happens when we see the weakness in each other and choose to love anyway, this is what happens when we see damage and seek to repair it instead of closing our doors and pushing it away. This is what happens when we try to do hard things, the high notes, the next right thing to do, just sort of roll out of us.
I am disappointed with this piece, I seem to have forgotten how to string words together and make them shine like strands of tiny twinkle lights. I will try to practice like I am practicing a very high (for me) A Flat, to make a perfect song with string of notes, a string of words.
I will focus on the next right note, the next right thing to do.
I will pray for the families who are living in areas the size of spaces in my own home but who are cold and who are hungry, who are afraid. I will pray for the family right here in my own town whose house I helped unpack and make ready, a place where, if it was raining the ceiling would be caving in, if it was dust we would all be blind.
I will keep believing that we can make the whole world that way, full of holy water and sacred dust, where every person is safe and whole and valued.
I will tell you how hard this work is, because it is true and we tell the truth here.
And because Cindi asked me to, I will stay open.