Safety Is Not Guaranteed

Or, “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Refugees.”

Ben Carson proudly backs a “majority of US Governors” who want to block Syrian refugees from coming into this country.  Paul Ryan calls for “a pause” in the refugee process, which typically takes two years, to reassure political leaders that refugees are adequately vetted.  (They are screened seven times, by several agencies, more than any other kind of immigrant.)  People across the United States are calling for the refugees to be kept out.  Government officials propose alternative solutions like, say, forcing all the refugees back into Syria and simply putting them in camps there and guarding them.

I understand that this is a complex issue and answers don’t come easily, but when I see my Christian brothers and sisters calling for the refugees to be sent back to Syria, or to be housed in “nearby countries where people are like them,” what I see isn’t a rational discussion about the issue, but a reaction based off of fear and xenophobia.  I have seen Christians using the Bible to defend both sides of the argument, arguing alternately that the Old Testament is stringent in it’s command to care for foreigners in our land and that we are called to provide for our own.

People say things like “why take in refugees from THERE when we have homeless people HERE?”

People say, “why should we WELCOME TERRORISTS?”

People say, “we have a responsibility to protect our families!”

Bible verses fly like chaff on the wind, the casing of an argument that is built around a very different kind of seed.

So come now, my friends, let’s try this again.

Why take in refugees from THERE when we have homeless people HERE?  Once upon a time, I was a supervisor in a homeless shelter.  And while my salary was paid by the kindness of our donors, and we received adequate support, I was always a little shocked by how many people didn’t help.  The amount of people who actively supported and donated, especially the amount of people who gave with any regularity, was a small percentage of the booming Christian population surrounding us.  The truth is that while homelessness is a growing problem in the United States, the people actively working to help homeless people are almost constantly having to beg for support, redirecting funds and personnel that could be helping the homeless to raise more funds.  If we really cared about the homeless, shelters wouldn’t have to be constantly begging for cash and calling their donors to ask for more food and socks and diapers.  It is both disheartening and outrageous to see homelessness used as an excuse to NOT help refugees, when the government funding for the programs that help the homeless is constantly under threat of being removed.  The Republican Presidential Nominees using “we need to help our people here” as a talking point for refusing the refugees have also said that they would cut funding to HUD, which sponsors shelters, and have said they would get rid of “tax loopholes” like the Community Development Block grant, which is part of what kept my own shelter in the black.

Point one:  You don’t get to use the homeless as a shield for your opinion if you actively support defunding the programs that currently keep them off the street.  Entire Republican field- I am talking to you.

Why should we welcome refugees if some might be terrorists?  Well, for one, while people are quick to talk about rising crime rates in European countries accepting refugees, the evidence is that the crime rate has risen in proportion to populations, showing that refugees commit the same amount of, or fewer, crimes comparative to their native counterparts.  While one bomber in Paris was found with a fake Syrian passport, his presence in France was due entirely to the amount of refugees arriving on boats in Greece and the European Union’s open border policies and lax refugee laws.  The refugees awaiting placement in the US are not the same ones washing onto the shores in Greece.  They are living in UN refugee camps and applied for placement years ago.  They are going through an intense screening process and would only be placed in the States if they are deemed to be a good fit: they have family here already, are connected with community groups here already, or have skills that would make them beneficial to the US economy.  The refugees that the UN would refer for placement in the US would already have protective barriers that are known to decrease the likelihood of terrorism, since terrorists are generally people who are disconnected from communities due to extreme hardship.  The presence of a fake passport on a terrorist in Paris tells us that the terrorists want us to fear refugees and send them back to Syria.  Do we want to be so easily manipulated?

Point Two:  If you fear refugees, you do what the terrorists want.  The first step to overcoming terrorism is to not fear what terrorists ask you to.

But we still have a responsibility to protect our families!  Except we have to ask ourselves what we need to protect them FROM.  One thing we want to protect them from is living in a future where the actions we take today could haunt them.  One way we could haunt our children is by making our country responsible for millions of deaths because refugee camps were overrun, people hand nowhere to go, so they were trying to cross the seas en masse on rubber rafts.  The fact that the US was unwilling to take in Jewish immigrants prior to WW2 remains as a stain on our collective conscience.  How many people could we have saved if we’d been compassionate?  But people had, then, the same fears they have today:  what if the refugees steal our jobs, rape our women, cause crimes, are actually spies?  While the problems today are slightly different and there is legitimate reason to suspect that terrorist organizations would take advantage of refugee programs, that is why the government of the United States already has refugees pass seven screenings through various organizations before approving them for placement, in a process that takes several years.  Ten thousand unscreened refugees aren’t going to show up and wage war tomorrow.  It isn’t going to happen.  While one or two psychopaths could possibly leak through, it would be in a percentage proportionate to the population at large.  And while one or two psychopaths can cause a lot of damage, we face mass shootings from our own citizens with some regularity.  By taking in refugees, we help the UN to provide stability throughout the Middle East by taking some of the pressure off of their refugee camps.  This helps to keep everyone safe and sap the power from the terrorists, who benefit from Syrian families suffering.  Besides which, if you feel justified in “keeping your family safe” at the expense of the suffering of innocent people, that is truly shudder-worthy.

Refugee camps catch on fire.

Refugee camps are susceptible to fatal disease outbreaks.

Female refugees, especially young women, are often the victims of unreported crime.

Refugees have inconsistent access to medical care, to education, and to basic niceties of life.  The war in Syria could rage for decades; in the meantime, are we meant to believe that we make the world safer by leaving these people to burn to death, to die of viral meningitis, to be raped and beaten?

Will their children learn to love us and our freedoms if we leave them to suffer?

Point three:  You cannot make the world safer by perpetuating the conditions that breed terrorism.  If you want the Muslim world to love us and our freedoms, bring them here.  Show them our freedoms.  Love them.  Let them learn to love us.

Besides which, the Bible doesn’t guarantee us safety.  If anything, it does the opposite.  The Bible is full of references to persecution, stating that as Christ suffered so we will also suffer as his disciples.  Let’s not forget the fact that we follow someone who lovingly offered his body to the scourge so that his blood would be shed to save us.  And we can’t even offer up our local community center to a refugee family so their children can play?

1 Corinthians 14:10-  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

This is an opportunity for us, in our weakness and fear, to be made strong.  This is an opportunity to put our faith in God, to put our fate in God’s hands, and to trust that His will be done.  This is a time to pray for the wisdom of our leaders that they make the right call when placing refugees.  This is a time for us to sacrifice our pride as the servants of mankind and to pour out blessings on the refugees, trusting that as we do so in obedience to Christ that our faith and humility will open their hearts to God’s love.

This is a time to act like Christ.

Let us not forget that Jesus washed Judas’ feet the night before he died.  That he ate with Judas, that he called him friend.

Let’s not forget that anything God calls for us to sacrifice, even our lives, is never too much.  That we have faith in him that he uses every harm for good, every wound to show his grace and mercy.  When we open our mouths to say that we must ignore the needs of the innocent because it is “too risky” to help, that we must leave orphans and widows in squalor because we must protect ourselves, what we say out of the other side of our mouth is that we no longer believe that serving other people in obedience to God offers us any sort of reward.  We want to reward ourselves with our own safety.

Is that what faith does?

Let us not forget that as the Bible teaches us, everything we have is God’s in the first place.

Psalm 24:1  The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it

All we have we possess as His stewards.  If we truly believe that, that this is His country and not ours, we need to ask ourselves not what we want but what He requires.

Does God want his children in the Muslim world to suffer in camps, living exposed to the elements in tents, subject to fire and disease, famine and cruelty, indefinitely while a war wages in their hometowns?  Does he want us to turn a blind eye to their plight out of fear that one or two radicals may slip through the cracks?  Does God value OUR safety more than THEIRS?

photo via the associated press

The Immigration Crisis, Right to Life, and Birthdays.

Really, there are times in my life when I know better than to go on Facebook.  Lately I’ve been having to bite my lip and quickly scroll past angry screeds about the recent immigration crisis, followed by the usual pictures of aborted fetuses and cheery Right-to-Life posts that say things like “everyone deserves to have a birthday!  Vote for life!”

And I find my patience quickly dwindling down to nothing.  Let me tell you a story:  5 years ago now, I was the site supervisor for a homeless shelter.  One of our families had a child who had a birthday while they were still our guests.  Her parents, feeling horrible about the fact that she couldn’t really have friends over for a sleepover like other young girls, went all out.  They used their electronic benefits to buy cake and cookies and balloons and presents, and they treated her like a princess.  I was telling someone about this, thinking it was a touching story of finding hope in the midst of hopelessness, and that person responded:

“If they had money, why didn’t they use it to get out of there?”

Well, there are a few responses to that.  One is that the amount of money spent on that party, which couldn’t have amounted to much more than what I have in a coin jar on my dresser on any given day, wouldn’t have been enough to pay for an apartment.  The other, more important response, is:  doesn’t every child have a right to have some pleasant memories in their life?  Do you really want to give a child the memory of no party, no desert, no presents, simply because their parent was poor?  Do you want a child to have the memory of crying themselves to sleep in a homeless shelter?  Is that really what we want?

Every child deserves to celebrate a birthday, huh?

So this immigration crisis, or refugee crisis, or what have you.  These 50,000 young children here in America, parentless, because their countries are awash in crime and poverty and chaos- do they deserve birthdays?  Or are they, like the child of the homeless couple, doomed to be judge as worthy of experiencing pain because it is a just punishment for the wrongs of their forefathers?

Truly, I do not understand the overwhelming attitude of intolerance and rage that is being expressed by people who are otherwise caring individuals.  I do get the sentiment that every child deserves a birthday.  People imagine a sort of dream life that aborted babies are missing out on- a life that involves loving parents, birthday parties, being wanted and needed and celebrated.  To have that potential extinguished is certainly a painful conceit.  So I do understand, I do.  I find it hard to comprehend how such tender-hearted people cannot concieve of the fact that such potential was surely lost from the time the proverbial pee stick turned blue, as this child was neither wanted nor celebrated from the start, and simply being born is no guarantee of that sad fact changing.

Take the refugee children, for example.  Are they celebrated?  Wanted?  Needed?  Their parents loved them enough to face the fact that they may never again see them, but to at least risk the possibility of a secure future elsewhere, far away from their now empty arms.  But what future is that?

Given the fact that they are being deported back to homes which may now be empty as a result of the drug wars, it’s not a future of birthdays.

Now, back to the homeless girl’s birthday:  I’m sure that no one really wanted her to cry herself to sleep.  What anyone whom I asked said was that her parents should be more responsible.  “I want her to have the kind of parents who get her out of that life!”  Ah, yes, of course.  If only we could take the generations of poverty, distress, maltreatment, lack of education and societal disregard that landed her there in the first place, she’d have a proper birthday!  The sentiment, once picked apart, is that her birthday shouldn’t come at taxpayer expense.  Someone *else* needs to be responsible, am I right?

There’s a fundamental injustice, though.  We can’t have it both ways.  We can’t say, “every child deserves a life of being wanted and celebrated” and then say, “but if the people in their life are not providing that it’s not MY fault.”

If we truly believe that there is a baseline, a basic life of pleasure and comforts that every child should have, don’t we have a responsibility to secure that?  Even if it hurts our pocketbooks?

When I hear people saying that it is the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico that are to blame for the plight of children and THOSE people should be responsible for securing the children’s futures, I burn.

I burn.

I am consumed.

If there is a moral imperative of which WE are conscious which OTHERS ignore, guess whose responsibility it is to secure it?  Ours.  That is like watching an old lady walk into traffic blind, then pointing at the other onlookers and saying, “YOU should have known to give her your hand.”

NO.  NO.  NO.

If you believe every child deserves to be loved, every child deserves a future, every child deserves a birthday cake- don’t point your fingers elsewhere and say that it can’t be our responsibility to open our borders and our homes.  It has to be.

It just has to be.

If you want every child to have a birthday, you’d better start learning Spanish well enough to sing “Las Mañanitas” and get to baking cakes.

On Motherhood in a crisis

The last week has been a whirlwind of stress, pain, exhaustion and moments of absolute clarity.  It all started last Thursday when my husband and I learned that his father had been injured in some sort of accident on the job and had been rushed to the hospital.  We live several states away, so there was immediate panic.  How bad is it?  Is he going to be okay?  Could we get my husband out there if we needed to?  Thanks to the generosity of my parents, my friends, and a handful of random strangers, we were able to raise the funds and airline miles to fly my husband out to be with his family.  As I’m writing this, my father-in-law has yet to regain consciousness, although his eyes sometimes open and his fingers sometimes move, which is better than where things had been.

It is so surreal, being out here while my husband is out there, trying to be the still point in a turning world when the center of gravity seems out of place.

I can’t say I know how hard it has been on my husband.

I do know, to some degree, how hard it has been on my children.  I can’t say how many times in the past week it seemed like the household turned from happiness to panicked chaos in a split second.  One moment we’re talking about our favorite My Little Ponies, the next minute it’s, “what happens if Pappy dies?”  One second it’s plans for the Minecraft server, the next it’s, “what if Pappy stays alive but never wakes up?”

Questions I can’t answer.  I long for the good old days of just having to explain that it is dark earlier because of the way the earth tilts on it’s axis and that the sky looks blue because of how our brain interprets the refraction of light.  That stuff is child’s play compared to explaining how when there’s bleeding inside of the brain, the brain can’t send signals the way it should and…  ugh.

We’re walking through the store and it’s this ghost that haunts us.  I want to lay down and cry, but I can’t.  I have to buy the groceries and clean the fridge and fold the laundry and check the homework and cook the meals, and meanwhile these questions follow me around the house in the irresistible and unignorable form of my children, panicking every time I have to think before answering.  “Why can’t Pappy talk on the phone?  Will he ever talk on the phone?”  I cook the food, I serve the food.  We sit around the table and try to act like nothing is missing.  “I don’t like eating at the table without Daddy.  Can we just watch a movie?”

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Time for bed.  Time to try to act like we can do this.  Change into pajamas, brushing teeth.  Here come the tears again.  “I don’t like going to sleep without daddy praying first.”  “We can try to call daddy.”  “Daddy is with Pappy.”  And here it comes again.  The kids keep getting out of bed, coming to see what I’m doing.  Wipe the tears quickly before they pop their heads in the room.  Smile.  Keep smiling.  Tuck them back in, again and again.  Be firm but not angry.  You have to sleep, you have to go to school in the morning.  Yes, it’s very sad that daddy isn’t here and we don’t know when Pappy will wake up, but in the meantime we have our lives to live.

Monkeypants keeps me up until midnight.  I sneak a few moments of silence before laying down, wake up before everyone else so that I have a moment to clear my head.  Wake the kids up with tickles and laughter, try to keep the questions at bay.  On the way to school they creep back in.  “My teacher asked about Pappy, what do I say?”  Smile, say that we’re keeping hope, we’re staying positive, daddy will be back home soon.  “Will Pappy wake up before daddy comes home?”  We can’t know.  “What if Pappy doesn’t wake up?”

Whatever happens, we’ll be okay.  We have each other and we love each other.

“Don’t fall down and hit your head until your brain bleeds,” my son says in a very serious voice.

I put my hand over my heart, “I promise to try not to,” I say, “but no matter what happens, you would be okay.  I know you would.”

He shakes his head, “I don’t like the fact that people get hurt and die,” he says.

No one likes that.  Who would?

Another bedtime, this time with less tears.  Another night where I’m up past midnight, putting them in bed again and again and again.  I wonder how little sleep I need to survive.  6 hours a night doesn’t seem like quite enough.  I make coffee in the mornings, I never make coffee.  I smile.  The questions are quieter today.  They aren’t always asked, but I see in their eyes, I see the questions they aren’t asking so I smile, I hold them tight, I speak softly as I check the homework and put out the food.  The questions always come out eventually.  “How much blood can come out of a brain?  Like, all the blood in the body?”

Gosh, that’s a good question.

“Do they put more blood back in him?  How does that work?”

I need to take more physiology classes.  The two weeks we spent on the brain in Psychology are not enough.  We Google things and talk about them.  “I hit my head on everything.  It seems stupid to put something as important as a brain in somebody’s head when they might just fall down and break it forever.”

We talk about miracles and people who come out of comas after months or years.

“I don’t want Pappy to be asleep for that long.”

No one does, but Pappy’s job is to sleep and heal and our job is to wait.

Another day, and another.  I find myself randomly nodding off on the couch while Monkeypants plays in the other room.  Wake up!  It’s not over yet.  My job is to stay awake and wait.  And I wonder, how long can I hold off my own questions, my own tears?  How long can I keep showing them how to be brave and keep hope?

8 days in, I realize the truth.  I can do it as long as I have to.  I can do it forever.  As long as their eyes are watching me, I can do whatever is asked of me, because in proving to them that everything will be okay, I prove it to myself.