I went to bed last night filled to weeping with what I’d seen on social media about the governor of my state, along with many others, declaring that we would not accept any Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks. I thought of my friend Robin and how she once explained Jesus to me: she just shut her mouth and spread her arms open wide.
That’s what love is supposed to look like. You need shelter, come to me. You need safety, come to me. You need to know you are loved, come to me. We’re becoming a frightened nation with our arms clasped tight. What happened to Lady Liberty–a gift from the French, no less–holding her torch high to light the way?
I am proud to be an American because we are the place of refuge. Our population–unless your folks were First Nations or brought over on a slave ship–is made up of people who sought out America for shelter, or safety, or freedom. Many of those new-made Americans were fleeing horrors. Maybe pogroms or the potato blight or poverty.
I remember going to Ellis Island and walking through the process. Through the long line for validating papers. Up the stairs to the medical check. Then summoned before the desk of the final questioner who made the call as to whether you would proceed forward to the door that led to America or whether you would be put on a boat back. What must that have felt like, to come so far then have the door slammed in your face? No room at the inn.
Brace yourselves–the atheist is about to start talking about the Bible and we all have Grandmama Eunice to thank for that. I woke up still thinking about refugees and the verse that came to mind was “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Sorry for the high language. We were raised King James Version, #KJV4Lyf.) Here’s a more modern rendition:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Drop the mic, Jesus. That’s some topical stuff, yo.
What if a terrorist gets in among the refugees? A wolf among the lambs? Yes, that could happen. Or a terrorist could fly in on a student visa. Or take a boat and come in through the coast. Or grow up in Iowa. Or Charleston.
If we slam the door on the people fleeing the very extremists we fear, we aren’t shutting out the terrorists. We’re shutting out the next generation of Americans. The ones who ran for shelter and found it. In my lifetime, that’s included Sudanese, Somalis, Serbs, Iranians, Vietnamese…and a whole lot of our great grandparents and grandparents.
The next part of my day really brought home this idea that America has to keep its arms open. There are two little girls in Carlos’ class who speak Arabic at home. I don’t know how they got here, I don’t know what country they are from. They are here now. They are quiet and watchful. They understand far more English than they speak. After many weeks of hugging them and talking to them and making a fuss over their drawings or puzzles, they have just begun to use single words when we talk. One said, “green” and “yellow” and “whhhhhite” last week when I pointed to colored blocks in the tower she had built.
I won’t use their names because I don’t have permission. I looked up the meaning of each girl’s name in Arabic and I swear Grandmama Eunice thumped me on the head again: one name means “mercy” and the other means “angel.” Angel and Mercy, these little souls I have been lucky enough to meet.
(Jesus picked up the mic and dropped it AGAIN.)
This morning was the Thanksgiving sing-a-long at PreK. I watched Angel and Mercy sit with their classmates in a nice straight row on the gymnasium floor. Each child wore a construction paper turkey hat made from their own handprints. Mercy’s eyes sparkled and she waved when I took her picture. Angel sucked on her finger, like she does when she is nervous.
What are they learning about Thanksgiving? What have we taught them about this quintessentially American holiday? When we are grateful for the bounty we appreciate here. When we remember how the native people of America helped our first set of refugees, fleeing home all those centuries ago.
I may not believe in angels, but I sure believe in mercy. And I open my arms and heart to the least of these, because I am an American.