Monthly Archives: January 2017

“Entertaining Angels” . . . from Syria

Thanks to colleague Brian Peterson for another guest blog post. Read his previous post, A Flame of Hopelinked here. (This post was originally published August 2016.)

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13: 1-2

 

What does an angel look like? For some, an angel is a super human-like creature who looks out for you; a gauzy, ethereal presence that makes you feel good. For others, an angel is a cute, adoring cherub in a fifteenth-century painting. A case could be made for each, but I’m skeptical of both.

The Bible speaks of angels, but without much detail. In Greek the word “angel” is rendered άγγελος and refers less to physical appearance and attributes as to function. They are by definition bearers of some sort of message. The word is related to another familiar biblical word, evangelism, Ευαγγέλιο, which translated literally means “good news,” encompassing a lot more than some sort of prefabricated Christian sales pitch. The mere presence of angels holds the possibility of seeing and hearing something completely new and unexpected, something good and even holy. If that’s what angels are all about then I must confess that I’ve encountered more than a few in my lifetime. Truth be told: angels are all around hidden only by our lack of imagination.

I want to tell you about five angels who recently showed up in my life. Late one night this past April, Adna, her husband Ahmed (not their real names), and their three young boys aged 13, 10 and 5 arrived on a flight from Iman, Jordan via Paris and Houston. Jordan had been their home for the past four years where they had fled the increasing violence of their hometown of Damascus, Syria. And as these five Syrian angels descended the airport escalator in Austin to the baggage claim, something profound began to occur.

We’d been preparing for them, of course; we being the gifted folks of AustinLutheranWelcome, the welcome team comprised of my congregation, three other local Lutheran congregations, a couple of progressive Baptists and a friend of forty years, all of them angels in their own right. Our journey had begun a couple of months earlier when we signed up with Refugee Services of Texas to assist in resettling a refugee family in the Austin area. Trained and vetted, but anxious like first-time parents, we waited for our family to arrive.

The folks at Refugee Services of Texas assured us that we’d have three weeks to get things together: locate furniture and household items to set up an apartment, arrange for airport pickup, prepare a first meal and help them get to various appointments those first few weeks of their arrival. So, imagine our surprise when we learned that it wouldn’t be three weeks of prep time, but one! With no time to waste, our team of angels got to work. A few other angels got in the act—my nephew and his best friend brought a pickup truck and picked up and delivered a leather couch and a bed.

Monday afternoon of our Syrian family’s evening arrival came and not surprisingly, we were frantically still getting things together. I found myself in IKEA-hell, knee-deep in slats, grommets, and hardware, hopelessly attempting to assemble a queen-sized bed for the mom and dad. As my frustration began to boil over, Jeff, one of our intrepid welcome team members called to check in. Before I could get too far venting about my predicament, he interrupted to say he had a friend who assembles IKEA furniture for a living. Yes! Jeff made a phone call and before I knew it, an angel named David was there ready to pitch in. Then there was just enough time for me to rush home for a shower. I stood in the living room and took time to say a prayer of thanks for the company of angels who had pitched in and that the five angels who would soon arrive would find joy and happiness in a new life in their new home. I then rushed to the airport.

Which brings me back to where I started, standing at the bottom of the escalator watching Ahmed, Adna, and their precious cargo make their way to greet us for the first time. We were told to watch for their white United Nations tote bags. Sure enough, they were the last ones to come down the escalator. Their long journey had left them exhausted, so we ferried them and their small bags home where a traditional hot meal, a pantry full of food and soft, clean beds awaited them.

In days to come team members got them to the Social Security office, doctor visits, job interviews, grocery stores and even provided a bus riding tutorial. More importantly though, we got to know them, a beautiful family, eager to begin a new life in the United States and who continue to be grateful beyond measure for a new life full of opportunity.

Impromptu English lessons were a blast and left all of us laughing until our sides ached. Over time, we learned their story, leaving everything behind as their Damascus neighborhood became increasingly dangerous, making a difficult journey to Iman, Jordan where they lived for four years applying for refugee status, vetted by both the UN and US State Department, until finally they boarded a plane headed for Austin, Texas.

All these angels have reminded me once again about how in the giving and receiving of hospitality we are all transformed. Early on we found out that a visit with Ahmed, Adna, and the boys involved the ritual of drinking tea, savoring sweet fruit and delicious homemade pastries, and sharing in conversation. Impromptu English lessons were a delight as we learned to understand each other more and more with each passing week.

In early June we all headed to the first annual Austin Refugee Festival where the boys experienced the wonder of the Velcro Wall and a jump castle for the first times in their lives. A couple of us showed the boys how to toss a football and a baseball. Even Adna got in on the act, tying her abaya in a knot at her feet so she could jump rope. Joy and laughter abounded even if we couldn’t completely understand each other. We’ve shared many other great experiences with our family of angels, most recently helping the boys get off to their first day of school. A picture of one of the boys boarding the school bus, backpack in place and thumbs up almost brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve thought often these past few months about these beautiful angels who have profoundly impacted our lives. They are Syrian—they are Muslim—they are refugees. Before all that, however, they are human beings looking to make their way in the world. I want to try to protect them from the kind of hateful rhetoric that demeans and diminishes them and the thousands of others like them who have endured so much. Certainly, they will face difficult challenges, but our lives shared together—Christian and Muslim, neighbors in the same human family—serve as a witness, a testimony, and as good news in angry and fear-filled times.

Maybe in our own small way, all of these angels point us to a path paved not with suspicion and resentment, but with the hope, joy, and love that God wants for us all.

 

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Brian Peterson (pictured) is pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin, Texas. Along with pastoring, he plays and teaches clarinet. He is the proud parent of two adult sons, Max and Luke. Brian regularly travels to Honduras and Nicaragua to brush up on his Spanish and make connections within the wider human family. Contact him at brianpeterson1965@gmail.com.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

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Evicted – Book Review

People who are not doing well economically in the United States – are they at fault or are they trapped in a system with little opportunity of moving forward? This has been a pertinent question and conversation point in the United States for generations back to the Gilded Age and the Depression ongoing to the current era of inequality.

evicted

Matthew Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and urban ethnographer. He’s not a blue blood; born at the dawn of the current era of inequality (circa 1980), he went to college with his parents’ encouragement but not their financial backing. While Desmond was in college, his working class parents were not able to keep up with mortgage payments and a bank foreclosed on their home in Winslow, Arizona – the home in which Desmond grew up. It became a defining moment in his educational and vocational journey.

Desmond decided to go to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. He figured studying sociology would give him the best chance to understand the prevalence of poverty in the richest country in the history of the world. Left-leaners blame poverty on structural forces (discrimination, for example) and right-leaners focus on individual deficiencies; Desmond judges both suppositions as lacking: “Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine . . . The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were entwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not.”

Desmond treats poverty as existing, not in a vacuum, but in a people-to-people relationship system where influences run much more varied than simple one directional causes-and-effects.

For the project that produced the book Evicted, Desmond moved into a lower-income Milwaukee trailer park in May 2008. He lived there four months and then moved into a rooming house on the second floor of a duplex in Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American North Side neighborhood. He lived there until June 2009. (This is the same part of the city that saw violent unrest in August 2016 after the fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith, a twenty-three-year-old African-American.)  Evicted details the lives of eight lower-income families Desmond got to know during the fourteen months he lived in Milwaukee. Some of the families are white, some are black; some with children and others without children. What they all share in common: evictions from their living quarters.

Desmond argues that the fight against poverty has rightly focused on jobs, parenting, education, and public policy to alleviate social problems caused by issues such as mass incarceration. But he clamors that a sharp focus on the dynamics of the private housing market is sorely missing and intricately linked to the persistence of poverty. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.”

According to Desmond, the majority of Americans living in poverty spend over half their income on housing, with one in four Americans spending more than 70 percent of their monthly income on housing and the electricity bill. It’s hard to stay put when there’s more month than income. One in eight Milwaukee families experienced eviction during 2009-2011. Desmond takes his readers to eviction court – a well-lubed machine in Milwaukee (and other large US cities) involving landlords, judges, sheriff deputies, moving companies, and belongings dumped onto the street curb.

Poverty in America, Desmond shows, has become a lucrative business. The trailer park owner – Desmond’s first landing spot in Milwaukee – was a Cadillac-driving millionaire who made upwards of $400,000 a year off the dilapidated trailer park. Categorize the owner as a top 1 percent earner making his living off of bottom 10 percent earners. (He was eventually forced to sell the park as the city wouldn’t renew his license because of multiple living code violations.) Desmond writes: “We need a new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important, we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitative and extractive markets.”

Desmond writes well. The first chapter describes Milwaukee’s formidable winter “as cold and grey as a mechanic’s wrench.” Read on and you’ll discover that he also researches well. His meticulous transcribing of recorded conversations and note-taking yielded more than 5,000 handwritten pages from which to tell this crucial and important American story of poverty.

Evicted joins a recent chorus of work (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth, among others) that documents the lack of knowledge that exists in upper- and middle-class America about their fellows who live in poverty. Since the advent of the current era of excess and inequality beginning in 1980, America has emphasized fiscal over social policy. We’ve figured out how the rich can get richer and what makes the stock market rocket upward. We’ve fallen behind, however, in compassion and understanding.

Desmond doesn’t write himself into the story. In the Epilogue (the only part of the book where he uses his first person singular voice), he asks readers when telling others of this work not to focus on him but upon the characters in the story: Scott, Pam, Sherrena, Arleen, Vannetta, Tobin and the others. I’ve strayed from Desmond’s request in this review. I can’t give, however, a stronger recommendation for this book – bump it up to the top of your to-read list, now. Evicted is must-reading for any and all concerned about poverty and inequality in American society and for those wanting to go beyond simple suppositions about their neighbors living in poverty.

Desmond, Matthew – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown, 2016).

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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