Still Harping on Refugees

On the first day of class this term, I had my Advanced English as a Second Language class watch Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Even though they couldn’t understand a large part of it, especially his many poetic and scriptural references, they still responded to the cadences and emotion of his speech. Later, they read a transcript.

The next day, I went for coffee with 3 Syrian women. Recent arrivals, they came 6 months ago through another Middle Eastern country, where they left their husbands to earn money while they came on alone to seek asylum.* They are struggling with a new culture, a new language (although all 3 speak decent English), with getting kids adjusted to new schools, all while adjusting to being single mothers. It’s a lot to deal with, and they are very grateful for overtures of friendship.


picture from  Credit: LWYang, Flikr.

One wanted to talk about the speech. “Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me. “And instead we all died. Why?” She was talking of the protests of the Arab Spring, and how their president’s reaction in gunning down those who spoke out against him was what sparked this bloody, brutal war that has been going 5 years with no end in sight. I could not answer her question. Why indeed? The Syrian situation is a quagmire, and while speedy involvement may have made sense, that moment is long past, swept into a maelstrom of ISIS and Assad and Aleppo and the Turks and the Kurds and the Iranians and the Russians.

I thought about our own history as Americans. Ironic, isn’t it? We love freedom fighters when they’re us, our own illustrious ancestors, but not when they’re anybody else. History as past and decided, with lines drawn sharp and definite, is one thing, but history as its being written is another, messy and blurry with sides that are sometimes indistinguishable. I believe, though, that we can make the right choice, figure out where we want to be whether or not history sides with us. And that is on the side of the civil rights marchers and the refugees, the ones marginalized and powerless.

“Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me.

“And instead we all died. Why?”

The news is not all bleak. In the span of 3 days, I heard of 2 different incidents involving different women in different stores, both of whom wear the hijab. Both were approached by strangers, who assured them of their welcome and hugged them. One, a sensitive soul, cried great gulping tears of gratitude. She is still crying days later when she tells me about the 2 women who told her, “Just because one person says they don’t want you doesn’t mean we all feel this way” and then hugged her. “They had to find kleenex for me because I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. She joyfully recounts the tale to her family back in Iraq, along with stories of protest marches and stinging editorials and even my Facebook posts, proof that not all Americans are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, proof that compassion can be found in unexpected places.

Tomorrow in class we’re having a Valentine’s Day party, 3 days after the fact. This is partly because Fridays are just good party days. I have told them not to bring heavy foods, as experience has taught me that these parties at 10 a.m. tend to include enormous platters of rice and chicken dishes, fried meat pastries, and much more. “Just finger food,” I urge. “Small things. Cookies. Or nothing. You don’t have to bring anything.” On Wednesday I already came home with a dozen red roses wrapped in tulle and 3 plates of food, all gifts from students.

We will put our chairs in a circle and talk, awkwardly balance pink paper plates and heart-covered napkins, bought 50% off after the day itself. We will discuss, with small corrections of grammar, the various things that have brought us to this place–a mix of professors and housewives and teachers and electrical engineers and scuba divers and people who list “cleaning” as a hobby.  Not all of us are refugees according to our passports, but we are all looking for friendship and a sense of community. So we will struggle forward, learning acceptance, offering friendship.

*Asylum seekers can’t work until their cases get to a certain point in the process. It typically takes about 6 months to get a work permit. Imagine having to survive 6 months without an income!


It Actually is Black & White

So I’ve gone from being mostly silent on social media to speaking out against the president’s recent executive order on immigration, and this morning I got called on the carpet, so to speak, at my church. One of the pastors, very gently, wanted to have a conversation with us about how strongly we were expressing ourselves. His problem wasn’t exactly with our opinions, but with how he perceived us being critical of the church.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Ahmed, 6 Horgos, Serbia It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still awake, formulating plans for how they will continue their journey through Hungary. Ahmed is six years old, and he carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.

Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
Ahmed, 6
Horgos, Serbia
It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still awake, formulating plans for how they will continue their journey through Hungary. Ahmed is six years old, and he carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.

He’s right. We are critical of the church, by which I mean American evangelicalism in general. The church, as he rightly pointed out, is made up of broken people who have been redeemed and are all in process of being sanctified. I know that, and I also know that I fall far short myself. I tend to love my Muslim refugee neighbor to such an extent that I sometimes have a harder time loving my white suburban neighbor too, but of course both need it.

In case you can’t tell, I go to a conservative church. It’s actually a great church in many ways, filled with generous people who love Scripture. Our church loves the Bible. But it has some blind spots, and they coincidentally seem to coincide with many of the shortcomings of the Republican party. The people at my church who are most vocal are very politically conservative. So they are reacting in a loving but conservative way to the refugee ban. They say things like, “government’s main job is to keep us safe” and “a sensible cap on numbers so we can properly care for them” and “it’s good to take a break from letting in refugees so we can really work on the vetting program and then we’ll let some of them in.” They say “those commands are for individuals and we should do that but governments have different commands.” And it’s snowing in Greece, in Jordan, in Lebanon’s Bekkah Valley, and families are sleeping on frozen ground in unheated tents, and dying of exposure, all so we can feel safer. Refugee families who have lost everything already are losing whatever shreds of hope they had, and people who love their Bibles think God is okay with that because government’s main job is to keep us safe. Caring is optional. It’s great that I care, I’ve been told, but they don’t have to. They can care about something else. I don’t have the right to tell them what God’s heart is.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Walaa, 5 Mar Elias informal settlement, Lebanon Walaa wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the informal settlement, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.

Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
Walaa, 5
Mar Elias informal settlement, Lebanon
Walaa wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the informal settlement, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.

If I was fiery about abortion, these good people would applaud me–not because they see it as a Republican issue, but because they see it as morally black and white. Murder, plain and simple. They start with it being wrong and work their way on to it being partisan. But refugee care is like that. It doesn’t matter that Trump is a Republican. I couldn’t care less who created this chaos. Caring for desperate, needy people is the very heart of God, and it should be the least controversial topic at church.

My pastor talked to me about “calling.” It’s my calling to care, and that’s good, but everyone else can choose. Hear me out: I’m not saying that you as a Christian have to be involved in refugee care. You may or may not be called to go minister in refugee camps or spend your daylight hours driving recent arrivals to doctor’s appointments or grocery stores. You don’t need to march in protests if you don’t want to. BUT. You do need to care. You do need to let it inform your vote. You do need to not support practices that break families even further. It’s not controversial. It’s not partisan. It’s right and wrong.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13 Beirut, Lebanon Ralia and Rahaf live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. The girls and their father have been sleeping on the street for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.

Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13
Beirut, Lebanon
Ralia and Rahaf live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. The girls and their father have been sleeping on the street for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.

“What if God wants America to take a 120-day break from letting refugees in?” our pastor asked. I’m still grappling with how to respond to that, but my husband was ready. “I am not taking a break from caring for them or advocating for them,” he said. “And I don’t believe God is taking a break from them either.”

I left the meeting at the church running late for a coffee downtown with a Syrian asylum seeker. We’re friends on Facebook, so she’s seen my posts. She thanked me for, as she put it, “fighting for the Arab people.” She’s broken-hearted at the response in her church to the crisis, and she loves that I’m fiery about it. I have gotten this over and over from my refugee friends. They love that I am showing my love for them by fighting for them. They take comfort in the fact that I care so deeply about them that I’m being emotional, and that I’m taking on other people on their behalf.

And tomorrow, I will visit a woman whose mother is dying and who desperately longs to go visit, but she’s afraid to leave her house, husband and children, in case she can’t come back. My husband will continue to help a man who is trying to bring his wife and toddler here. The wife was approved a year ago but they are still waiting for the 2 year old to get through the vetting process. They all have stories for us to listen to, and they all ask us to pray for them.

But I need prayer too; that my righteous anger would be like Jesus’ and heal, not scorch.

*I’m assuming you already know that we have a very strict vetting process in place. For more information, this is a helpful article. 



On Teaching MLK the day of Trump’s Inauguration

We have had an unusual amount of snow this winter, with attendant ice storms, and the result has been over a month of Christmas vacation for ESL classes. And so it has come to pass that I am preparing the first lesson of the year for my advanced class. We do a lesson on MLK every year, the Friday before his holiday which is of course on a Monday, and it’s very well received. My students adore MLK. “The Middle East needs someone like that,” different students have told me several times.

Because of the weather, this year I’m doing the lesson a week late, and it falls on the day of President Trump’s inauguration. My students are permanent residents or new citizens of the United States, and this is history. I would be remiss if I didn’t do a lesson on the peaceful transition of power. It’s ironic: my Arab students, even those who are Christian, are more fearful these days, yet they understand why people voted for him. He makes sense to them. After all, they are used to Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and other dictator-types.


How to weave the two together? MLK and Trump; history past and history passing. The two seem diametrically opposed in many ways; one preaching non-violence in the face of offense, insult, and the very real threat of death, the other encouraging a mindless sort of violence towards rally-goers who heckled him. One steeped in a tradition of eloquence, using the power of words as a finely-wrought and skillfully-weilded sword, the other using words as a blunt instrument, putting the “bully” back in bully pulpit, his most common words “I” “me” “myself” “my”. One a member of an oppressed minority, with ancestral memories of slavery and beatings, growing up under injustice; the other a member of a elite group of rich white men, posting pictures of his family in an opulent glitzy room that makes up in money what it lacks in taste.

It seems comical, ridiculous to try to put the two into one 90-minute lesson. Yet I will try. This is the world we live in. It’s so broken that Martin Luther King can be assassinated, and Donald Trump can win the presidency. We have made some halting progress as a nation since King’s death; racism still exists, but frankly it exists in every nation on earth and at least we recognize it to a point and deal with it to a point. The mistake is to think it’s a thing of the past, and not look to our own hearts and see our own sin.

And while the two men are both flawed and imperfect, they represent all of us in our multi-faceted and fractured selves. In King, we see one who followed after Perfection; in Trump we see one who follows after Self. (Am I too harsh? No. Have you heard the things he says?)  And yet if we are honest with ourselves, if we examine our hearts, we can see times we have done both, I suspect. I know I can give you examples of both just from this week.

But this may be too subtle for English class. We will look at inaugural traditions, we will read the “I Have a Dream” speech and explain and expound it. I will assign them to watch what they can of the inauguration and to write a response to the speech, and I hope this starts a discussion that carries on in the weeks and months to come. This class likes to do that, stretching their tongues to express their thoughts and hearts in a language that remains elusive and slippery at times. And I will assure them of their welcome to this country, help them write letters when their health-care bills are too high, keep looking for more volunteers to help with ESL classes–just what I’m already doing. In fact, as MLK said, I will “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

Random Thoughts on the day of the Feast of the Innocents

At the end of a year in which our world seems even crazier than normal, our hearts are heavy. We stagger under it the weight of it–deaths of innocents in Aleppo, in Mosul, in the Mediterranean Sea fleeing death on land, in all countries on earth as Herod’s spirit lives on in despots clinging to power by whatever means necessary. Deaths caused because the victim is the wrong color, in the wrong place, the wrong kind of religion, the wrong side of the fence.

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted
because they are no more.

Ever since I had children, these words have struck a chill in my soul. What could be worse? How could those mothers in Bethlehem have carried on? I know an Iraqi woman who was kidnapped and held for ransom by a militia practicing a different kind of Islam than hers; she was tortured and her youngest son was killed in front of her. She is a difficult woman to love; she’s secretive, she steals small things from the church where she comes for free English classes and day-old bread from a small food bank. She doesn’t tell her story. I knew her 3 years before her daughter, recently  arrived, told me. “We had to get mamma out,” she tells me. “That’s why she came by herself.” In that moment, I forgave her everything. She may have carried on, but she’s damaged, deep within her psyche. And I am in awe of her, and of all these mothers and fathers and grandmothers and wives and husbands, who have suffered unimaginable loss.

We have a friend here, a man on his own who fled when his life was targeted and whose wife and children said, “Go now; we will finish up here and join you.” And then ISIS swept into Mosul, and there they still are. The other day, my husband was visiting him and he showed him a news video from Mosul. A house blew up; there was gunfire; then a group of civilians emerged cautiously and ran to safety. He paused the video: “That’s my daughter,” he said, pointing; “And that’s my grandson. There’s her father-in-law…” This man is an artist and is selling prints of his paintings to raise money to send to his daughter and her family, now living in a tent, hungry and shivering in the cold desert nights of Northern Iraq. His wife and youngest two children are still in ISIS-controlled territory. He has no news, and doesn’t like to talk about it.


Image from The Times 

The other day I was feeling sorry for myself, thinking on damaged relationships and distant children (is it really true that they can rebel and it’s not your fault, at least partly? What could you have done differently? There are things you could have and should have done differently, that you know). And I caught sight of that painting, and all my sorrow fell into perspective, and I fell to my knees (metaphorically) and dried my tears and prayed instead for this family and others caught up in war and separation and starvation and desperation.

We are only 3 days after celebrating the Incarnation, the “good news of great joy to all people,” and we are already remembering sorrows that pierce the very soul. How can this be? How can the promises we cling to, that God will wipe every tear, that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and they shall not hurt or destroy, even be possible? What joy can erase seeing your beloved son killed by those who hate him and who disregard all lives but their very own?

I don’t know. I know Jesus, God With Us, who sees all things past and future and knows all things seen and unseen, saw such joy ahead of him that he went to the cross and despised its shame. I know that eternal perspective gives us a weight of glory that makes current troubles light and insignificant, and I believe this even though I don’t understand it. I think C.S. Lewis described it so helpfully at the end of The Great Divorce;

“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

As Lewis so often does, he makes reality sound both magical and logical, possible.

I don’t know what to do with all the suffering in the world, but I know what I need to do with those in front of me. Weep with them, dry their tears, carry their burdens as much as I can. What this looks like means visiting them, spending time listening to them, taking them out of their lonely apartments for a bit, helping them for a minute even see something beyond sorrow, even if it’s just pretty lights and decorated trees. Telling them that one day, even death will be no more, and there waits for us an eternal weight of glory.


Sacrifices that Cost Me Something

Recently, a good friend of mine had her daughter move overseas to work with Muslims in a country that’s stable and prosperous at the moment, but is ringed by those that aren’t. My friend has never been overseas herself. I give her until the first grandchild before she learns the ways of international airports, long layovers, lost luggage and bittersweet reunions–bittersweet because you know the reunion will be short-lived. She’s excited for her daughter on the one hand, but on the other she is simply sad.

Often as Christians, we feel guilty for sadness. We think it’s only appropriate if it’s “righteous”–i.e. a sadness about our own sin or someone else’s. How could she feel sad that her daughter was going to share the gospel with people who might otherwise never hear it? I could practically see the argument going on in her head.



Image courtesy of: Family Vacation Critic

Before we went overseas, I was sad too, not to mention nervous and scared and excited. I had ALL the feelings. I was sad that my children would grow up not knowing their grandmother. I was sad at all the things they’d miss–trips to the Nutcracker Ballet at Christmas, crisp falls and cold winters and rainy, colourful springs, picking fresh berries in the summer, a feeling of rootedness and connectedness with life-long friends and memories of place.

It was February 2001. We were staying in church housing, a tiny apartment furnished with other people’s cast-offs from the 70s and 80s. We had just sold our house, the first house I ever owned and where we had lived for the longest I had ever lived in one house in my life–6 years. (That record still stands). I had no idea I could be so attached. I loved the way the morning light came into the dining room. I loved the porch, and the deep blue hydrangea bush next to it. My children (3) were all babies in this house, and I had so many memories of sleepy babies and crying toddlers; of one boy running straight off 5 steps up to the porch just to crash-land on the concrete sidewalk below (he’s always believed he could fly); of the time we painted the entire living room and dining room over a weekend just because we’d invited the pastor and his wife for dinner and then, 3 days beforehand, knocked over a bottle of wine that stained the wall; of first Christmases and first birthdays and first steps and first words and the time I found my toddler eating cat food with a sterling silver serving spoon. So. Many. Memories. I was crushed under the weight of them, sitting on an ugly plaid couch staring, unseeing, at a solid oak coffee table, drinking coffee from an ugly mug with pink cats on it, my own mugs either sold at garage sales or packed carefully into suitcases.

I was reading through the Bible that year, I remember. And I was at the end of I Chronicles, after David takes the census and God punishes him by sending a plague on the land for 3 days. It’s towards the end, and David looks up and sees the angel with a flaming sword drawn and then sheathed, and he falls down in worship and decides to build an altar right there. He offers to buy the land from its owner, Ornan.

Ornan said to David, “Take it for yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.” 24But King David replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.”

I stopped right there, overwhelmed. Sacrifices are supposed to cost something. They aren’t supposed to be fun and easy–that negates the term. It’s not that I didn’t know that, but it hit me anew. I will not offer to the Lord sacrifices that cost me nothing. It cost me something to kiss my widowed, elderly mother goodbye and get on that plane, knowing that I would probably never live near her again. (I didn’t) It cost me something to raise my kids in a place where you literally could find nothing to give them for birthdays and Christmases, where my eyes craved green in a land of dust and shades of tan.

We are often uncomfortable with this concept. Our pastor is fond of pointing out that we actually can offer nothing to the Lord, and he thinks it’s unhealthy and prideful to point to our own sacrifices. I do see his point, but I think the whole matter is deeper and more subtle. When our children make us sloppy valentines or mother’s day cards covered in crooked writing and kisses, we don’t say, “You know, I bought that paper and the markers you used. This is really from me. You contributed nothing.” Instead, we hug them and our hearts overflow, and we make sure that card stays in our possession. I still have a loving note my daughter once wrote me on toilet paper! It’s carefully preserved in a box and has lasted through several moves both international and domestic.

There is a sweetness in saying to God, “This is not what I want to happen, but I offer it to you because I love you, because you are my God and you have given all to me.” Whether that be a decision to submit to our husbands (who are wrong!) in obedience to God, a decision to give up a relaxing evening home (which we really deserve–we are far too busy, right?) to visit a neighbor who down deep is lonely and afraid, or even a decision to send our kids far from home and family with a smile like my friend did, when we deliberately give our choices to God, he responds. How? I think in the very best way–by letting us know that he loves us and is pleased with us. There’s a closeness that comes out of consciously telling God, through our thoughts and actions, that we love him and want to please him and be close to him. Paul tells us to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices.” (Rom. 12) Like a mother whose child who is offering her bouquet of dandelions from the lawn, God responds with joy to our offerings for him, no matter how big or how small.

I think using the language of sacrifice can be helpful and can deepen our walk with God. He is the only one who is worthy of our praise, and we can show him that by consciously giving him what we are and have throughout our days. And we can come with a child-like confidence that our offerings won’t be scorned for their meagerness but will be accepted with joy and love.

Christmas Parties

Every year, we have a Christmas party for our Iraqi refugee friends. Every year, it’s pretty much a success. Every year, in the weeks leading up to it, my husband announces that this is it, this is the last year we are doing this, how did he get talked into doing this again, this is too much work and stress and do people really even enjoy it? Giving is down, it’s hard every year to find people who want to help, what’s the point, etc etc etc.

This year was no exception. The stress, the last-minute planning (or lack thereof), the undeniable fact that no one came to help us set up, which made me very grateful indeed for my two teenage sons, who did far too much work. As usual, we had no idea who would actually come and who would snub the party. As usual, we had a good turn-out, so much so that we actually ran out of chairs and some people had to stand. The kids ran around, fueled as much by excitement as by sugar.


No chairs meant no high heels after a few hours!

My husband gave a short message, focusing on the promises of God fulfilled by Jesus. He talked about what it’s like to wait for a gift. When he solicited examples from the audience, adults gave examples of waiting years for husbands to join them, or for their papers granting them refugee status and admittance to America, but one girl talked about the bike she was getting for her birthday next week.

At these gatherings, the people closest to the speaker will mostly listen, but those even one or two tables away have no qualms about just carrying on their conversations full voice. It’s very frustrating for Americans. We are raised to sit still and listen when someone is speaking to us. We are raised to wait our turn, stand patiently in line. When Iraqi kids first arrive, this is hard for them. At schools, other kids yell at them and teachers are firm. You have to wait in line. The other day in my English class, we were doing the past perfect tense and I wrote on the board, “Before I came to America I had never…” and one student answered “stood in a line.”

But I had a small revelation as I watched the women in their hijabs chatting animatedly while my husband and a friend to translate stood at the other end of the room and tried to convey timeless truths. I’m sure that it was like this in Jesus’ time. I pictured the Sermon on the Mount, or the time just before the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus speaking out over the Galilean hills crowded with men and women and children, whiny and hungry and hot all of them. The children no doubt ran around chasing each other, the women stood comfortably gossiping with babies on hips, and up front a few heard and fewer still let the word of God enter their hearts. And yet many lives were changed forever.

Why are we here? Why are we left on this broken and hurting earth that so desperately needs the hope of Immanuel, God with us? I believe with all my heart that it’s to bear witness, to shine light, to share hope with those around us. This often means crossing various barriers–of culture, language, personality. It’s easy to see cultural differences between Iraqi refugees who arrived last week and Americans, but sometimes the cultural differences are more subtle–maybe it’s just someone whose upbringing was radically different than ours, or someone who’s a staunch member of the “wrong” political party, or someone whose outward appearance or lifestyle choices shock or offend.  As we reflect on and celebrate the coming of our Saviour to earth 2000+ years ago, let’s also reflect on how we are doing at intentionally reaching out, letting our light shine, sharing the reason for the hope that we have.



But Fear Itself

fearfulI was a very fearful child. Bookish, imaginative, and prone to strange fancies, I was about as neurotic as they come. I used to sit in the backseat of the car and worry about the overpasses crashing down on us, killing my parents and leaving me alone and traumatized in the world. I grew up in the 70s, at the height of the Cold War, and I had nightmares of the Communists coming to kill my parents that left me shaking,  afraid of going to bed for weeks afterwards. I can still remember in excruciating detail an extraordinarily vivid dream of watching my parents get shot for being Christians.  I even had plans of where to hide Bibles so they wouldn’t get found (in a loaf of baking bread, although I was always worried that we wouldn’t happen to be baking bread when the soldiers knocked on the door. It was a valid fear. My mother never made homemade bread.)

But I didn’t want to be like this. I didn’t like being timid. I read stories of adventuresome children who, true, were mostly orphans but were still out having a great time, taming wild stallions and sword-fighting and sledding in the mountains. I fought hard against my fearfulness, and I learned that the first battlefield is the mind (cf Rom. 12:2)  I worked to not picture bookcases crashing down on my baby’s head, or sharks eating my swimming husband, and I learned to relax and let my kids swim in oceans with fierce currants, or jump off high walls onto packed sand, or eat street food in developing countries.

I know fear. I know how it paralyzes, how it lies to you, how it curls up in the pit of your stomach and reaches cold hands to grip your shoulders. I am well aware of the seductiveness of worse-case-scenarios, and how one thing can lead to another as you lie awake in the cold watches of the night, dismayed and restless. Fear is something we all struggle with. This is why the commandment stated most often, number one, in the Bible is, “Fear not!”  (And I always think if a heavenly being suddenly materialized beside me, I would no doubt shriek and wet my pants. I get it)

That was a super long introduction but my point is this: We live in fearful times. I watch in dismay as many of my believing brothers and sisters fall under its powerful sway. When 2 Muslims shoot up a holiday party in San Bernadino, we fear all Muslims because they look homogeneous to us, but when a white man shoots up a Planned Parenthood office we’re not afraid because we know a lot of white men who would never in a million years do that. Since fear is irrational, this makes sense.

My Muslim friends are fearful too, because they can’t ignore all the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric being spilled out onto the pages of Facebook and Yahoo! News. Refugees, in general, are not coming from places with religious freedom, and that is an idea they like about their new home. They are vocally very grateful, and it gets mentioned most year in the Thanksgiving ESL classes where we talk about what we are thankful for in our lives. Freedom from fear of being pulled over and shot because your name shows you’re the wrong kind of Muslim. Freedom to wear or not wear the hijab (head scarf) according to your own convictions, and not be hassled on the street for showing a bit of hair. This taste of freedom makes it all the much harder to go back to being afraid. “But even people from your church are saying things on Facebook,” said one of my Muslim friends to me the other day, and my heart just broke. She doesn’t want her husband to go for coffee with other Arab friends. She has stopped her son from going to Arabic lessons, fearing they might be a target.

The other day I was out for coffee with an unbelieving friend, and she said to me, “What is up with Christians? Why are they being so hateful to Muslims and refugees? That’s not in the Bible, right?” I told her, “No, it’s not, but they’re afraid.” In one way, this is okay. We are all so far from perfect, and that’s why we need grace. Maybe the people struggling with fear are doing great in other areas–hospitality and service and faithfulness. Fear itself is not a sin, I don’t think–like any other emotion, it’s what you do with it. If fear is keeping you from obeying the God who came to earth and lived as poor, displaced, rejected, the God who told us that when we welcome the stranger it’s as if we’re doing it to him, then I think that fear has become sin.


The good news is that Christ sets us free–from sin, from fear. Fear paralyzes, makes us disgusted with ourselves and others. It keeps us from joy.

But perfect love casts out fear.

Common Sense & Syrian Refugees

Let’s all take a deep breath and look rationally at this whole thing. I know, gallons of pixels have been spilled (aside: can we update this metaphor?) and you probably think that enough has been written on this subject. And you may be right. On the other hand, although I’m not an expert, I lived in Muslim nations for 9 years and I’ve worked with Iraqi refugees for 5. That’s 14 times 365 of day in and day out life lived across culture and religion, which qualifies me to have an opinion at least as much as the people shouting things on Facebook.

tenniel-shouted in his ear.jpg

  1. The risk is minuscule. Yes, yes, I know. One of the Paris bombers allegedly came into the country posing as a refugee. But the others were already there legally. Some American citizens have also joined Daesh (or ISIS). If they want to bomb us, they have much easier ways in than to pose as refugees. We’re geographically more protected than Europe and as a result, all of the refugees we admit have been thoroughly vetted. Trust me on this. I know how long and thorough the process is, and I’ve been frustrated by it. One man came ahead of his family, leaving a pregnant wife and 2 children to join him later. The baby was born, and it took the family two entire years to get that infant refugee status and join the dad. Two years to vet a newborn. It can take up to 5 years for adults.
  2. The risk is misjudged. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone on FB explaining earnestly how Syrians want to overrun our culture, make us all submit to Shariah law, etc etc. They don’t. What they want: for their kids to get an education, to be able to work and provide for their families, to live in peace and safety, hope.
  3. We are already at risk. Life is risk. Can we please be honest with ourselves for a minute? We are all at far greater risk of being shot by a white man with lots of guns and mental issues than we are by a darker-skinned man who shouts “Allah u Akbar!”
    The family I mentioned above sent the husband on ahead to make sure it was safe for them. They were afraid to come to America. They understood that we are a violent people, where many people carry guns and people shoot other people just for entering their property, not to mention school shootings, movie theater shootings, mall shootings, church shootings, synagogue shootings, and mosque shootings. Many families are afraid to raise their daughters in such a promiscuous society.  And then they come, and they relax. They meet Americans, realize life isn’t like TV, and settle into getting kids in school, getting to know their neighbors, learning to live in a totally different culture and language.
    But can we just look at ourselves from the outside for a minute and see how uninviting and scary our own beloved culture might look?
  4. The best way to minimize risk is to welcome and engage refugees. Leaving families to rot in refugee camp limbo, to raise their kids without education or hope for a better tomorrow, while we continue to show the world via our sleek media that we all have gorgeous houses, shiny hair, white teeth and new cars, is pretty much a recipe for future terrorism. But letting them in and keeping them marginalized won’t do it either. Here’s a radical idea: what if we welcomed them, helped them adapt, engaged them with friendship, and loved them? Don’t you think this is also the best way to fight radicalization of young men? Let’s show them love, introduce them to Jesus, be kind to those who are different from us, serve them without strings attached. This is also the right thing to do, but I’m not even bringing WWJD into this. This one is purely pragmatic.
  5. Jesus commands us to love our enemies. Oh yeah, I went there. I have saved the best for last. If we claim to follow him, then we can’t hide behind arguments of “oh sure I will love them if they live next to me but I don’t have to love them now and my government sure doesn’t have to!” (a very rough paraphrase of many comments I’ve read) “Love your enemies and pray for those who misuse you,” he commanded us. The idea that we would put our own imaginary safety (for no one in this life is truly safe–there are always airborne viruses and earthquakes) above the needs of hurting people is nowhere even allowed in Scripture. As for the government, they are simply wrong-headed about this, because as I’ve already pointed out, we incur more risk by not letting them in.

This is one of those beautiful times when doing the right thing is also the most pragmatic, I believe. I welcome your respectful and thoughtful comments.

A Tale of Two Friends

I cannot say one was the best of friends and one was the worst, but I must admit to feeling annoyed with one of these 2 friends of mine. One Iraqi, one American. One Muslim, one Christian. One married, one divorced. One jaded from abuse suffered long ago…and the other too.

One sat me down in her kitchen, served me tea, pushed me to eat. She told me about her nephew. He lived in an area of Baghdad segregated by the Sunni-Shi’a rift, although he has a parent from each sect. His mother grew increasingly frantic as she watched police come through and round up all the young men, who disappeared–where? To jail, for being the wrong sect? To conscription in a militia, which would probably mean death? To a mass grave for being the wrong sort of Muslim?

When her son turned 16, she concocted a plan. Yes it’s a desperate plan, but it’s one being followed by millions of people right now and no doubt that makes it sound more feasible. She and a group of other mothers gathered up all the money they could, thousands of dollars, and sent a group of their teenaged sons to Turkey. There, the boys found smugglers getting rich off the desperation of parents.

My other friend posts articles on Facebook. “Security before Compassion,” they trumpet. She writes me emails. She says things like, “I know as Christians we are supposed to care for the needy. But these so-called refugees are all young men! Why aren’t they working? Why aren’t they fighting for their country?” She is offended at what she sees as a lack of gratitude.

This friend doesn’t understand the point of leaving. “They are safe and secure in Turkey,” she tells me. I have never heard refugee camps referred to in this way. Doesn’t she understand that countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon don’t allow refugees to work, keep them marginalized, on the fringes? (This isn’t meant as criticism. Each country has taken in millions of desperate people) The children grow up uneducated, their childhood spent trying to hawk small things to help the family survive. Now the UNHCR is cutting the small funds they’ve needed to survive. No wonder everyone is leaving. But when I point these things out, she doesn’t listen. She insists that only women and children are “real” refugees.

Migrantspicture credit: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror

“My nephew, he took boat, very small…like Titanic,” my first friend tells me. I nod. She means a life-boat. I’ve seen the pictures and I’m sure you have too. She tells me that there were 50 people on it. Thankfully they made it though, to Greece, and then her nephew and his friends started the long, arduous journey north. Along the way, they all got separated, but her nephew made it to Germany. Because of his age and the fact that he had no family with him, they processed him quickly. Now he’s in an apartment with 2 other single young men, Syrians. He’s in high school. All his needs are met except for his emotional ones. He’s lonely and homesick.

“He calls my sister and says ‘I want to go back.’ She says NO,” says my friend. I nod. “No he mustn’t go back,” I agree. “It will get better for him. It will be very hard at first but it will get better.”

The child is homesick. He doesn’t like the food. He misses his mother and her cooking. My heart breaks, thinking of my own children, of my daughter calling me in her second week of college and saying, “Why aren’t you here to do my laundry?” in a manner that was joking but also carried a note of longing. It’s hard to grow up, harder still to do it in a new country and culture, alone.

My other friend says things like, “Oh sure some of them are legitimate. But many of these refugees are not the same ones we are being told are supposedly being rescued.  They are opportunists, with insurgents mixed in, who are riding the wave.”

I point out that if my family was in that situation, we too would send our boys. My husband and I would stay, and our daughter would certainly be raped and possibly kidnapped and trafficked if we tried to send her alone. If we couldn’t all go (and the cost is 1000s per person for smugglers), I would send my sons. I can’t imagine a more heart-breaking decision, but I already know I would do as many families in the Middle East are doing and have done. And I would pray and bless anyone who showed them kindness, anyone who didn’t assume that the color of their skin made them suspicious, or that their name branded them a potential terrorist.

Yes we need to be smart, but security can’t come before compassion. If you pause a moment and run the entire Bible through your head, you would be hard-pressed to find a verse that even sorta kinda supports that attitude. God didn’t give us a spirit of fear. Jesus looked on the crowds (of mostly men) with compassion.

Sadly, her attitude is not unusual for people dwelling in safety with overstocked barns. Every week we sing songs. “Spirit take me where my faith is without borders.” “I stand with heart abandoned to the One who gave it all.” But the moment at which we put ourselves before others’ desperate need, when we imply that God likes us best of all and doesn’t really care about the lost, we have become the desperate ones in great peril. Thankfully, we too can receive mercy and find help–if only we recognize our need of it.

Broken Chairs and Bitter Coffee

I sat in what surely must be one of most uncomfortable chairs in America, a straight-backed kitchen chair whose seat was entirely broken so that I had to balance uneasily against the back ridge, my feet a few inches off the floor, my butt slowing going numb. This was the home of a refugee, filled with cast-off furniture, and it was clear from the way other women were sitting that the couch wasn’t any better. A few feet away, a woman clad entirely in black, a triangle of cloth from head to toe, mumbled, cleared her throat, and began chanting into a microphone, which was entirely unnecessary in that tiny, crowded room. The women, seated on cushions against the wall all round the room, crowded onto broken couches, fidgeting on broken chairs, joined in. Subhan Allah. Al’Ham Dulillah*, they chanted. Subhan Allah. Allah u Akbar.

It’s my second funeral in less than a week. I know the ritual now. When you arrive, you are served what I think of as funeral coffee. It’s similar to Turkish coffee but made with Nescafe instead of water, and it’s potent and bitter. Booklets containing sections of the Qu’ran are passed out, and various people take them and read them and sometimes kiss them. The entire Qu’ran must be read by the 3rd day after death, which is the day this ceremony takes place.This is counted as a good deed done on behalf of the recently deceased.

Then the chanting woman arrives with 2 older women. They settle themselves in the place of honour and set up the loudspeaker and microphone. Sometimes, they will stand up and begin to sing and beat themselves, and then everyone in the room will follow their lead, beating their breasts or their foreheads with their hands, hard. At a certain point in the ceremony, everyone in the room will weep. They will grab two, three tissues and press them helplessly to their eyes. Sobs will ring out. And then, suddenly, magically, at the end of the song they will stop. The chanting will stop. Everyone will dry their eyes. Bottles of water will be handed out, then cans of Coke and platters of food. We will eat. People will chatter. And then they will leave.

This time, the sobs don’t stop. A woman has lost her father. I know her only minimally, am not even sure of her name, so I don’t know how long it’s been since she saw him, but I’m sure it’s been several years. She grieves, crushed in spirit, collapsing on the ground. Another woman goes to her, fills a glass with water, and lifts it to her lips.

One thing I have always loved about my glimpses into Arab societies and cultures is the way it helps me understand my Bible more. As a modern American, so much of the narrative is strange to me, lost to the intervening years and worldviews, buried under a couple centuries of industrialization and technology. But here in this crowded living room in suburban America, it was all too easy to imagine how Jesus could have dealt with the situation. I prayed and prayed, wanting so badly to represent him well, to give comfort the way he did.

I shifted subtly in that broken chair and read the gospels on my phone. While the women wailed and beat their breasts, I caught my breath anew at an image of Jesus walking in and saying, “She is only sleeping” (at the raising of Jairus’ daughter; Luke 8) and it was easy to imagine the tears instantly stopping while they laughed at him. I read and re-read John 11, where he went to a graveyard and said “I am the resurrection and the life!” and I prayed for each woman round the room, that she would come to see that and be given the hope it represents.

My very first Muslim funeral was also for a daughter who had lost her father. She gripped me frantically. “Tell me that he’s okay! Tell me that he’s in heaven!” she pleaded with me. I wanted to be able to reassure her, but all I could say was, “God loves your father” and “God will do right.” I don’t know how helpful either of those were, but when a woman whom you love pleads with you for reassurance that you can’t give, what can you say? You seek ways to comfort without losing the truth. I don’t doubt her father lived and died without ever hearing the gospel, the good news that changes how we face death. The next day we visited again, and I told her the story of Lazarus, and Jesus’ words blazing with life and hope in the midst of that dark hopeless graveyard.

We left this latest funeral early. I had carpooled with friends, and I think they were tired of those chairs. I knelt before the still-weeping daughter and gave her what hope I could, with our limited language. I hugged her and cried with her, told her I’d be praying for her. She thanked me brokenly, but I know she doesn’t know what it means to run to the God of the universe as if he were your own father, confident of being heard and loved. And so I left with my own heart broken, longing for her to know and have this peace.

*the first two both basically mean Praise God. The last one means God is great.