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!


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.