The other day I wrote to a Tanzanian friend, a priest working to improve Christian-Muslim relations. I told him I’ve been especially concerned of late with the needs of immigrants and refugees in this country. “I am happy to say,” I wrote, “that many churches are responding to those fearing deportation and others being refused refuge.” That churches are speaking out against the current wave of nativist American “populism” and are trying to help our citizens become more welcoming of the stranger. I concluded “It will be a long battle here. So pray for us as we pray for you and your fellow Tanzanians.”
And that is the gist of this writing: to share my concern about the needs of refugees and immigrants and urge that our response to them is perhaps the most important issue facing us in this country.
Of course we all have lists of “most important issues,” for there are many – health care and taxes and jobs and racism and the continuing decline in public trust, and of course worries about violence and war. Yet my intuition tells me that our response in coming years to the pressing reality of global flight and migration will be the greatest test of our humanity and morality.
That’s why, shortly after Trump’s first order banning immigration from specific Muslim countries, I stood for a week with a sign during the morning rush hour at a street corner by Union Station in downtown Denver. I had been inspired by a small demonstration the previous weekend in Denver’s Civic Center Park.
My sign read “Refugees Welcome Here” on one side, and “Jesus Was a Refugee” on the other. Both sides had a blown up reproduction of the famous woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg depicting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fleeing Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
Many in the morning crowd smiled at my sign, some gave thumbs up and high fives. A few identified themselves as refugees. Others looked away or just passed by, while a some gave thumbs down.
There was a big demonstration in Denver at the end of my week where the best sign I saw read “No hate, no fear; refugees are welcome here.” I liked both the rhyme and the explicit naming of hate and fear. Then in late February there was ceremony welcoming refugees at Union Station hosted by Colorado’s Governor and Denver’s Mayor. The event was clearly designed both as an expression of heartfelt welcome and, with its strong positive tone, as a powerful statement of opposition to anti-immigrant policy and sentiment. So I then decided to stand with my sign for an hour or so whenever I could during Lent.
These and many other actions and events find much support in the words of church leaders like Pope Francis and San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy. That good man recently even urged us to “disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need.”
I’m no expert on refugee and immigration issues. I feel greater clarity about the need to welcome those fleeing war, violence, and religious persecution than about immigrants seeking to improve their lives. Yet I do believe that many “illegals immigrants” are in fact fleeing violence, both the gun violence of their home countries and the economic violence (of poverty and oppression) in which our corporations and our government are complicit. Virtually everyone knows that our US immigration policies and practices are a mess, inadequate both to the labor realities of this country and to the dignity of new immigrants. Yet we are terribly divided about what policies and practices are needed.
So I turn for guidance above all to informed church leadership. Here I’ll simply comment on the two already-mentioned Catholic leaders. Yet I urge the reader to do her own online searching since so many churches (both denominations and individual churches) have made important statements, issued serious studies, and developed practical initiatives (from immediate social services like legal aid and job training to support for various forms of sanctuary). I am especially impressed by continuing actions on the part of my wife’s Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).
Pope Francis recently got into trouble for criticizing the way refugees flooding into Europe are being held in concentration camps. One predictable sector of Jewish leadership objected since they seem to think the horrific Jewish experience of the Holocaust gives them ownership of the term “concentration camp.” Yet during World War II my aunt, a Maryknoll Sister in the Philippines, spent years in a Japanese concentration camp for American citizens. She was luckier than the US soldiers (imprisoned in what were literally death camps) since locals were allowed to bring food to the civilian camp. Francis, to his credit, did not back down. Conditions in too many “retention centers” throughout Europe justify the name “concentration camp.” Perhaps it should also be used about the supposedly more benign detention camps in the US.
Pope Francis has, or course, long been challenging us to welcome refugees and all “forced migrants.” Perhaps most memorable was his 2016 trip to Greece where he and Orthodox leaders visited refugee camps and whence he brought a family from Syria back to Rome. Here are words from the joint declaration issued by Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens:
“The tragedy of forced migration and displacement affects millions, and is fundamentally a crisis of humanity, calling for a response of solidarity, compassion, generosity and an immediate practical commitment of resources. From Lesbos, we appeal to the international community to respond with courage in facing this massive humanitarian crisis and its underlying causes, through diplomatic, political and charitable initiatives, and through cooperative efforts, both in the Middle East and in Europe.”
Francis has also created a new Vatican department on migrants and refugees which reports directly to him. It’s part of his effort to organize churches throughout the world to respond both to the present crisis and the larger reality of global migration.
For me, an even more stirring Christian call to action came from San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy in a recent speech to a conference of activists and community organizers. His deeply thoughtful and passionate words were widely reported. Please read the text since my brief citations below can’t convey its careful analysis. It stands in remarkable contrast not only to today’s tweets and TV reports, but even to important but far less provocative statements from other church leaders.
What got attention in press reports was the fact that a Catholic Bishop was calling us to “disrupt” things. What got less attention was McElroy’s explanation that he was taking that term from the Trump campaign’s promises to disrupt the present way of doing things. McElroy was responding in kind, but in a very different direction. He called for “disruption” of the larger political-economic system that (as Pope Francis has repeatedly said) “kills people.”
McElroy never mentions Trump, but doesn’t pull punches in speaking about the present:
“Well now, we must all become disruptors. We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men, women and children as forces of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.”
Yet his call for disruption was prelude to a larger call to rebuild our systems – to make America great again, if you will, but in a very different way than the banal and brutal tendencies of present politics.
“But we, as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ, as children of Abraham, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad, as people of all faiths and no faith, we cannot merely be disruptors, we also have to be rebuilders.
“We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person and assert what the American flag behinds us asserts is our heritage: Every man, woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal. We must rebuild a nation in solidarity, what Catholic teaching calls the sense that all of us are the children of the one God, there are no children of a lesser god in our midst. That all of us are called to be cohesive and embrace one another and see ourselves as graced by God. We are called to rebuild our nation which does pay $15 an hour in wages, and provides decent housing, clothing and food for those who are poorest. And we need to rebuild our Earth, which is so much in danger by our own industries.”
Of course it remains to be seen how folks in the pews (Catholic or Presbyterian, Christian or Jewish or Muslim) will respond to such statements by their leaders. For we know that many of them voted for Trump and we may suspect that many are held captive by fear-filled images of the foreigner as a dangerous threat to our way of life.
Yet I stood with my sign knowing that I was in solidarity with many religious and non-religious folk who are today seeking more hopeful directions for our country. I stood with my sign because there are so many people fleeing violence and seeking refuge among us. As did so many Vietnamese after 1975, folks who today are a proud and integral part of Denver and other cities in the US. And because my own Catholic ancestors were refugees, from famine and British brutality in Ireland and from militarism in Germany. And perhaps because I spent the first part of my life in New York City where Lady Liberty has welcomed so many refugees and where generations of immigrants have continually contributed to that city’s great vitality.
I suggest that all of us must find our ways to oppose and disrupt prevailing forms of nativism, but we must seek ways to oppose and disrupt which do not further polarize our country, ways that invite our opponents to join in working towards a more fully human and shared sense of national purpose. I hope it’s possible.