I am baffled by recently publicized attempts to keep refugees out of our country. I am baffled as an American and baffled once again as a person of faith. I almost don’t know where to begin.
In the late 1600’s, my Rosenberger family was evicted from Switzerland because as Mennonites we “didn’t fit” in Calvinist Swiss cantons. Back then even different Christians hated each other with a cold-heartedness we today reserve for different faiths. So my family forebears—hapless refugees—settled in a devastated river valley in Germany where the 30 Years War was waged. Eking out a life, they were farming land that didn’t belong to them, land nobody else wanted, burned over by decades of warfare. I cannot imagine how fearfully tenuous their existence was.
Already for decades William Penn had been making forays into Holland and Germany to recruit for Pennsylvania. In the early 1700’s he came up that river valley and found my destitute but hard-working family. He spoke of a place where they could farm their own land. He invited them to a place where they would be fully enfranchised to vote giving them say in their destiny.
That was how my family fled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania before 1710. Whenever I crossed the George Washington Bridge back and forth to Michigan in Yale Divinity School days, I would peer down the Hudson for the light upon the statue with these words, “”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We Rosenbergers were wretched refuse. But I felt somehow proud of that because America is built on these unlikely foundations. The idea of giving broken folk a new lease on life is at the heart of the patriotism I feel for this country. Would we dare abandon what has made us great?
The refugees from Syria today are no more a threat to America than my family was back then. As our Senior Deacon wrote in a recent Facebook post, refugees are not immigrants. They have been displaced by war or persecution and have nowhere to go. They are fleeing for their lives. Refugees undergo extreme vetting before they come here. It takes years for them to enter to be approved. No refugee has been involved in terrorist acts. Refugees are no security problem.
Proportionally speaking, the US has received many fewer refugees than places like Canada or Sweden or Australia, only 100,000 last year, a miniscule portion of our population. As people enter America—like my forebears of old—they work hard to redeem the new chance. There is no reason to reduce this number, and every reason to increase it. We are talking about families here, married couples with children, who want a better life. Nothing could be more American.
As Gary Holmes said, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees into Egypt fleeing the persecution of Herod. Abandoning refugees today is morally equivalent to abandoning Jesus and his family.”
I don’t know how your feel about that, but it sticks in my throat. Ironically, a letter written by former pastor Albert Schmalz came across my desk today. He talks about bringing two anti-Nazi refugees, veterans of concentration camps, into Darien to serve as a butler and a cook. Pastor Schmalz sent regular food packages to their families in Stuttgart for their survival. Friends, refugees are who we are, who we’ve been, and who our faith points us toward. St. Luke’s has just welcomed their refugee family. Noroton Presbyterian’s hopes for the same have been dashed by the executive action. We had better remember who we are or we could lose it.