Friday, November 20, 2015

Welcome the Stranger

There is a meme that has been going around on Facebook which depicts the story of the Good Samaritan. There are the two characters up the road with their backs turned, and then there is the man who was robbed and beaten and left for dead in the ditch. The person tending to him, the Samaritan is in a turban.

This story is so old and iconic that even those with only the barest exposure to this parable from Luke’s Gospel know that the big general message of this is: love your neighbor. Take care of the person in need. And, just as it says elsewhere in the Bible, those of us who identify as Christian carry an additional burden to pay very close attention to the finer details of this parable. It isn’t just any ol’ person who stopped to help the beaten man; it was a person who was very much an “other” to the lawyer whom Jesus is telling this story. Samaritans were the hated “other people.” The ones who walked away were the pure and clean—the priest and the Levite—who crossed and went to the other side. They removed themselves from this bloodied man. The robbers we only know as robbers: faceless, nameless, and wanton in their attack. And who was the beaten man? We don’t know, but the assumption is that he was a Jew, like the lawyer to whom Jesus is speaking. But he could have been anybody, another type of “other,” perhaps. The Samaritan didn’t care. He only saw the fellow human in need, and he laid down his own concerns and plans to attend to this person. Jesus posed the question, “Which of these three is the neighbor to the beaten man?” and the lawyer, probably looking down at his feet, says, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise.” Amen!

When the Syrian refugee crisis was hitting the news as a lead story here in these far remote United States, my spouse asked me one morning, with tears in her eyes, if we would be willing to take in some refugees into our very modest home here in the swampy south land. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes.” And then I got tears in my eyes, too. How could I say “no” to one who is running away in fear from their homeland where they are either being gunned down by their government or brutalized by a bullying terrorist group? How could I look at myself and call myself a follower of the Son of God, and not accept someone into our home who is traumatized and afraid and a foreigner?

I contacted the Episcopal Migration Ministries, who told me that accepting refugees into our home would be highly unlikely given the extremely lengthy process. But they kept my information and have been keeping me abreast about how we can be of help, specifically how we could increase the extremely low number of Syrian refugees the Obama administration proposed to accept into our country from 10,000 to 100,000.

That was before the attacks in Paris last Friday and yesterday’s Congressional vote that proposes to make it damn near impossible to accept any more refugees from Syria. Everyone is afraid that someone might be a terrorist, especially if that someone doesn’t look like one of us.

This from a country that has countless politicians who cite their Christian credentials every time they run for office. How do we justify blocking the beaten and broken women, children, and elderly (who are the priorities of our refugee policy) and then call ourselves “Christian?” We had no problem back in the 1980s accepting over 200,000 refugees from Vietnam. We made it easy in Florida to accept boatloads of Cubans. Yet we close our borders to Syrians?

Where is the mercy in this picture?

As I surveyed my feelings of anger and bitter disappointment in my Congress, especially my own Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham, I was reminded of a paragon of Christian courage by the same last name: the Rev. Lee Graham. Same surname, but my dear friend, who passed away three years ago this week, I believe would be shaking his head about our reaction to the refugees. Fr. Graham owned up to what it means to live into the Gospel of Love when he faced extreme hatred and hostility during the civil rights struggles in Alabama. He was branded a communist during the Vietnam War because he sided with peace. And he the only Episcopal priest in this city with enough guts to put on his clerical collar and stand with the disenfranchised gay population after the devastating vote against our community in the 2008 election. He was a friend to me during those horrible days after that vote. I remember him shaking his head, and shrugging his shoulders as he told me, “Well, we gotta keep trying.”

At his funeral in 2012, Fr. Lee had apparently left directions that I was to serve as a Eucharistic Minister along with another lay minister friend, and that I was to read a passage he’d selected from First Corinthians. The last line of that passage has felt like his final words to all who seek mercy and justice in the world:

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1Cor.15:58)

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has exhorted us not to be afraid. Embracing Jesus, truly and completely, requires one to let go of fears and lay down one’s life to help another. Our Congress, and our country, has fallen far short of that goal.

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