Tag Archives: Syrian refugees

The Immigrant Spirit

Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for running a condensed version of this blog post in the Saturday, April 1 edition. No foolin’ . . .

 

Some of you know that I’m working on a new writing project, and no longer serving as a full-time parish pastor. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have opportunity to preach on Sundays – I was honored to preach recently at Palm Valley Lutheran in Round Rock, Texas. Solo es que prediqué en Español. I preached in Spanish for the congregation’s Hispanic Ministry effort. Thanks to colleague pastor Joaquín Figueroa for the invitation. Most of the gathered faithful were immigrants, born outside of the United States. They reminded me about el ánimo (explained below) – part of the immigrant spirit, a principal foundation of this society.

I used Isaiah 58:1-9 for my message. This post-exilic text – leaders returning to a destroyed Jerusalem to reconstruct the city and its temple around 500 B.C.E. – entreats people to remember that the best religious practice balances worship piety and social concerns. Plain and simple: gathering for worship to sing, pray, and uplift Scripture goes hand-in-hand with the good acts of feeding the hungry, welcoming refugees, and practicing justice in the market place.

On the surface, our current societal context in the United States is much different from Israel’s in the 5th century before Christ. The Israelites lacked material resources as they returned to their homeland with hopes and dreams. Here in the United States, material resources abound for many to pursue their hopes and dreams. What the two disparate contexts have in common is anxiety – personal and societal. Israel was anxious about the momentous task of rebuilding their city while having to protect themselves. In the United States, we have levels of personal and societal anxiety that are off the charts.

And what do individuals and societies do when they experience high levels of anxiety? They turn inward. Adopting survival-mode is a logical response – and some will argue, a biological one – to anxiety. It’s natural to turn inward and to close ranks; individuals put me first, and societies adopt us and them language and put tribe, ethnic group, or nation first.

Be careful, however. Turning inward is a legitimate response for emergency situations; as a long-term strategy, however, turning inward doesn’t make for a better me, you, us, or nation. This was the prophet’s message from two and a half millennia past. Reaching out to the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and treating others fairly in the market place were vital components to the right practice of religion. They still are.

After the worship service, we gathered for Estudio Bíblico – Bible study. Pastor Figueroa invited me to present a few themes from my work on faith and inequality from my book Just a Little Bit More, now available in summary form in Spanish as Solo un Poco Más. We had a lively discussion, using Ecclesiastes 5:10 as a guide. We talked about work, money, faith, responsibility, and el ánimo – best translated in English as drive, enthusiasm, effort. The stories shared spoke of sacrifice, perseverance, and dogged hope – and good ol’ hard work. All of the men who were present work in construction; the women work as house and office cleaners, and in healthcare. Almost all send money to relatives in their native countries. These are great American traits and practices – busting one’s tail for extended family, paying taxes, teaching children the value of hard work, and uplifting common good by attitude and lifestyle. This is the immigrant spirit that so many have brought to these shore through the generations and still today. This is the positive spirit of just a little bit more.

The negative spirit of just a little bit more has shaped American society as well. Slavery and the near-extermination of indigenous inhabitants were carried out, whether the perpetrators knew it or not, in the spirit of social Darwinist conquest. In that day for many, the end result justified the means used. Today, greedy Wall Street firms and pharmaceutical companies blatantly ripping off customers are only two examples of the pervasive negative spirit of getting what’s mine at the expense of someone else. Today we know that neither the means nor the ends are justified when someone takes advantage of another socially or economically.

Drive, enthusiasm, and effort – el ánimo – are great traits when used for the betterment of family, community, and society. Life is complicated; efforts at betterment, small or large, must be  examined continually to make sure that others are not taken advantage of in the process.

High levels of personal and societal anxiety explain why a lot of Americans voted for nominee Trump. His promise “to put America first” struck a chord. What “America first” means precisely and whether he can carry it out in the globalized twenty-first century remains to be seen. While he doesn’t disdain immigrants or migration generally – First Lady Melania is an immigrant – his specific disdain of people of Mexican heritage, Mexican migrants (whether legal or undocumented), and his attempted ban of Syrian immigration sends a clear message: some immigrants are not to be trusted. No one has or ever will accuse the president of being a historian; his strategy of turning inward goes against the best moments of our history and joins some of the worst (the Trail of Tears in the 1830s; FDR interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor; the flourishing of the Klan in the 1950s; and, the era of McCarthyism).

When the president models reactionary behavior concerning immigration, it follows that some ugly bits of our history will be repeated. Take a stand – either from religious conviction or human solidarity – and welcome the stranger in your midst. We have more in common than that which differentiates us. The following story exemplifies the best of the immigrant spirit.

——–

I travelled to Detroit with eight of my high school youth two summers ago for a five-day national youth gathering – 30,000 Lutherans descended upon the Motor City. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce slipped up a bit; apparently word didn’t get around that the Lutherans – 30,000 hungry people with money to spend – would be arriving mid-week. Late that Wednesday afternoon of our arrival we walked downtown Detroit with the goals of taking in a few sights and getting some eats. I had checked the Web previously and picked out a place called Gateway Deli (I’m a big sandwich guy, and my youth gave me first dibs on choosing a place to eat). We found the place – 333 W. Fort Street – but it was closed!! The restaurant’s hours were 7am – 4pm. We were so disappointed – and hungry. I looked inside past the “CLOSED” sign to see if someone was inside. A guy came to the door and opened up. He said, sorry, we’re closed. He had an eastern European accent. I explained our dilemma. He said that he heard a big group was coming this weekend, but he had no idea people were arriving today. He said he’d been there that morning since 4:30am. I said your menu looks great – I had perused it online. Then he said the magic words: “Come on in. I’ll take care of you.” He had already put in twelve hours that day.

And he did take care of us. One of his wait staff was still there. Between the two of them they served us – a group of ten – with smiles, hospitality, and great food. And, yes, we gave our server, a middle-aged white woman who had to moved to Detroit from Arkansas, a hefty tip. As the youth finished their meals, I went over and talked to the kind man who let us in after they had closed. He said call him “Q.” He was the proprietor. Yes, he was an immigrant from eastern Europe; I didn’t ask which country. He had previously lived and worked in New York City, and then moved to Detroit in 2013. He heard that rents were cheaper in Detroit, and that the city was making a comeback from the turmoil of the 2008-09 economic crash. And he was right – Detroit is coming back, thanks to immigrants like Q and other hard-working Detroiters. Three days later we came back and had a great breakfast. That weekend he stayed open later for dinner and had staff to cover. Our second meal at Gateway Deli was just as good as our first, and all of our youth got a kick out of thanking our new immigrant friend who went by the cool name of Q.

The immigrant spirit. There’s no America without it. The immigrant spirit reminds us where we’ve come from; it reminds us that this land originally did not belong to us; it helps keep us honest and focused. Spend some time and talk to the next person you encounter who speaks English with an accent. Listen to their story. Their immigrant story just might surprise you – for the better.

q

Q and T. Carlos – Gateway Deli, Detroit – July 2015

 

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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“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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