Naomi Shibah Nye’s father came to America as a refugee from Palestine. She wrote this poem reflecting on his life:
“Refugee Not Always”
who was always our father
not always our father
once a confident schoolboy
strolling Jerusalem streets
He knew the alleyways
spoke to stones
All his life he would pick up stones
and pocket them
On some he drew
What do we say in the wake of one
who was always homesick?
Are you home now?
Is Palestine peaceful in some dimension
we can’t see?
Do Jews and Arabs share the table?
Is holy in the middle?[i]
Every year we have a Refugee Awareness Sunday, usually on the Sunday closest to the United Nations World Refugee Day. Refugees include our neighbors, teachers, doctors, artists, parents, children, and friends. They have made our community and churches stronger. Two of the high school graduates we celebrate today came to the U.S. as refugees.
The Presbyterian Church of Okemos has supported refugees since the 1980s through befriending, tutoring, and sharing resources. In the last decade, member Judi Harris has directed refugee resettlement in Lansing through St. Vincent’s and given us regular updates. With her leadership, our church helped to start the Global Institute of Lansing, a school directed by member Paula Frantz for refugees to earn a high school diploma that meets in a Presbyterian church basement with volunteer teachers. We started the All Faith Alliance for Refugees—connecting the interfaith clergy network with these and other supportive work. We have held community wide prayer vigils. In December’s service, Imam Sohail Chaudhry reminded us that Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jesus and Mohammad were all refugees.
And as Judi Harris said, times, they are like no other. . .the U.S. refugee resettlement program has been gutted. Those seeking asylum directly at our borders are being separated from family and jailed as criminals. While simultaneously, the number of refugees in the world is at an all-time high, 68 million. That is greater than the population of the U.K. and France.
The temptation is to ignore–to put up a mental block, a wall. We’re busy. We have our own problems, and then more. It’s painful to weep with those who weep. We have so much privilege that we can go on living as if a refugee crisis is not happening. And if we do contemplate it, well than, we’re just ordinary people, and what can we do?
God made everyone in God’s own image. Who can say anyone is less than human? Or deserves to be treated as such? God is our Father and our Mother, together we are children of God. Those in camps, and detention centers, are our brothers and sisters. We are to see this with the God’s eyes, hear with God’s ears, and allow our hearts to break with God’s heart. Refugee, not always. Child of God, always. Holy, always.
Jesus Christ not only identified with the hungry, sick and the marginalized, he became these in the incarnation. He and his parents were refugees to Egypt, and then later lived as Jews persecuted with their people under Roman occupation. Jesus talked in parables. Hoping others also in the resistance would hear.
‘For those who have ears, let them . . . ’
Jesus told about the kingdom of God being like seeds. Seeds are tiny. Seeds aren’t fancy or wealthy. They float, and poke, and scatter. They drop into the dirt and compost. Remember, compost is that which has broken down. It’s hard to stop seeds, even death can’t do that.
A seed, really? Can’t the kingdom of God be like something bigger and shinier? I wonder what David thought—just have those 5 little stones when he faced the giant? Or the widow and Elijah with so little oil left.
“The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed in the ground . . and would sleep and rise night and day.” “Sleep and rise both.”
“and the seed would sprout, and grow, and he does not know how.”
Holy mystery. The person knows and, also, doesn’t know. The person participates in God’s work. The stalk grows and ripens for harvest.
Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a gift from her grandfather. Once he brought her a little paper cup. She looked inside it, expecting something special. It was full of dirt. As a child growing up in a high-rise Manhattan apartment, she was not allowed to play with dirt. Disappointed, she told him this. He smiled at her fondly.
Turning, he picked up her little teapot and watered the dirt. He told her,
“If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen.”
This whole thing made no sense to her at all. “Every day, dear one” he told her. . . At first she was curious, but then grew weary and discouraged as the days and nights passed. Nothing appeared to be happening, and she wanted to give up. Only her love for her grandfather would wake her and remind her. One, two weeks passed, and still nothing. But then one morning, there were two little green leaves that had not been there the night before.
She was completely surprised. Grandpa did seem so astonished.
“And all it needs is water, Grandpa?”
she asked him. Gently he touched her on her head to bless her.
“All it needs is your faithfulness.”[ii]
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (I Corinthians 3:6).
We think that what we have is not much, really; not much time, or money, and certainly there are others who know more. But we do have seeds. We have water, and a whole lot of dirt. We have an invitation to be faithful even when we can’t see it makes any difference.
I have struggled anticipating this year’s refugee sermon for months–knowing not what to say. And it is faithful to cry and hold silence, just like we did at our prayer vigils, and continue to do so in our prayer time.
And we hear Jesus whisper across time and space. We hear God’s son, the Refugee—say, “And the Kingdom of God is like scattering seeds.” Sow seeds of compassion—see the humanity of a stranger—and the image of God within them. Water and nurture. Rise, and rest. Tell stories and parables. We know how to do this. It’s more important than ever. And now, also more than ever, we need to address larger systems, policies, and structures. What is happening is not ok. We don’t have a big and shiny solution, or a quick fix, but we can scatter seeds. That can not be taken away from us.
About 10 days ago, a United Methodist colleague reached out to me, saying he was trying to find a faith leader from the 8th Congressional District to fly to DC and speak about immigration issues this last week. Hmm, I was kind of busy with Jonathan’s graduation on Sunday, and open house yesterday. I tried to find someone to go but didn’t have much luck. They were all busy too. Deep down I really wanted to go. The immigration problem is huge and complicated. I figured I wasn’t ‘enough’ of anything to go. And yet, my heart that has grieved and prayed, my heart leapt—I said, ‘yes.’
Going through security at the airport, the guard unpacking my suitcase for suspicious objects asked me where I was going and what I was doing. “I’m going to DC to talk to my legislators about immigration.” Her face lit up and she looked me in the eye, “Oh yes, go.” And in Uber from the airport to the convent where I stayed, the driver from Ethiopia asked why I was there, and I told him. He startled me with, “Halleluiah, o Halleluiah.” He showed me his Bible from Ethiopia and asked if I would pray for him before he left me at the Catholic guest house. And in the morning, I spent half an hour praying in Spanish with the nuns in their habits who run Centro Maria. They sent me off smiling saying,
“We will pray. We will pray.”
The Uber driver from Cameroon, was also a Presbyterian minister. He told me that he was studying for the LSAT, because he wants to go to law school and become an immigration lawyer. The spirit and the prayers of total strangers nurtured tiny seeds of courage in me.
I met other pastors, like Craig from Colorado, whose United Methodist Church is a sanctuary for a woman named Rosa. Rosa’s faith and witness traveled with him as he quoted her, and he’s asked her to preach when he is gone this summer. I met Cassy, mother of a 5-month-old, pastor of a church in Houston, who is a Dreamer, and fears deportation herself. Together we met United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Church World Service staff who plant and nurture seeds of justice every day on Capitol Hill. And around the table together, they loved stories of our activities here– GIL, and AFAR, of refugee updates from Judi, and advocacy trainings with Ellen. We watched Senator John Lewis, and other clergy, daring to be arrested as they protested the separation of parents and children at the border. Dirt named. Seeds shared. Water poured.
And then came time sitting down with lawmakers and their staff. Time to listen heart to heart. Time to talk about Dreamers, and refugees, and family separation. Time to bless all desires for good. Time to lean in and challenge. Time to be big enough for mystery and awareness of something beyond our knowing. Time for strength to rise and to rest.
We remember refugees languishing in camps, and other immigrants in distress. It’s tempting to feel paralyzed by helplessness. And at the same time, we can see the humanity and the divinity within each person, including, and especially the refugee. We confess we don’t know what to do and hold that discomfort. We form relationships and help each other be brave. We weep in the wrong, and rage over the broken. We rejoice in the good. We claim our power, however small it feels. We support staff and programs with refugees in our community. We can contact our lawmakers about those in camps and cells, and how that’s not ok. We can be witnesses to the truth. We can rise and rest, each day. This week another stranger who nurtured me with space to rest and water to drink, quoted Mother Theresa saying, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.”
And Jesus said,
“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, when sown upon the ground it is the smallest of all the seeds. Yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Hear Jesus say to us this day:
You are the seed that will grow a new sprout;
you’re a star that will shine in the night;
you are the yeast and a small grain of salt,
a beacon to glow in the dark. . . .
Go, my friends, go to the world,
proclaiming love to all,
messengers of my forgiving peace, eternal love.
. . .
“Lo, I’ll be with you forever,
till the end of the world.”[iii]
This much we know, for the Bible tells us so.
[i] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Refugee Not Always,” https://onbeing.org/programs/naomi-shihab-nye-your-life-is-a-poem-mar2018/
[ii]Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
[iii] “You Are the Seed,” Cesareo Gabaraín; translated by Raquel Gutiérrez-Achon and Skinner Chávez-Melo, UM Hymnal, No. 583