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Mary Jo Leddy: The Call of Refugees

(Editor's note: This is a transciption of a lecture Mary Jo Leddy gave at the Toronto launch of the CRC resource Journey with Me. The workshop will launch again in Vancouver at 7:30pm on Tuesday, April 28 at First Christian Reformed Church of Vancouver.)

A young Jewish man was studying to be a rabbi in New York City and for his field placement he was assigned to work in a little synagogue in an institution for mentally ill people. One of his first jobs was to preach on the high holy days, and he worked very hard on this sermon. He was going to recapitulate 5000 years of Jewish history and his culminating statement would be the question asked by the young person at the Passover meal. So he worked on this sermon, and on Friday night in the little synagogue people came in and took their place, he started. “About 5,000 years ago when we came out of Egypt, when we came to the Promised Land, when we were in Israel…” And he worked up to the question, and he said, “Brothers and sisters I ask you: why are we here?” And from the back of the synagogue and old man stood up and said, “Well Rabbi, maybe we are not all there.“

You know I think about all of us gathered here this morning, huddling in the cold, and it is early, and we are gathered to speak about “refugees”—not exactly the most popular topic in Canada at this time. We are not all there, and that is what is great. We are not normal, we are with like-spirited people. Wonderful like-spirited people. I came here today as much for myself as to speak to you. I need to be with you. I need to be with people who are just a little bit crazy, a little bit faithful, a little bit hopeful, in a very difficult time. I have already talked with somebody at my table who knows how very difficult it is these days and in this country to care for refugees. We all watch the news on TV, we see the stories every night of Syrian refugees. Refugees throughout the world, refugees drowning in boats in the Mediterranean, and I think everybody here today knows that this is probably the most difficult time in this country to work with refugees. We are living with a government that we elected—I think we always have to say that, maybe not you personally, but as a country—we have elected a government that has closed the door to refugees. Some are getting through, a very small number, but people are waiting in their churches to sponsor refugees for years, like the people in Peterborough who are here. Many of your churches have experienced the wait, and wait, and wait, and the kind of smoke and mirrors games that are going on. The Minister of Immigration is constantly fumbling the figures to say how many or how few refugees from Syria have arrived.

Two days ago in The Toronto Star there was a new set of statistics of countries who take in refugees and Canada was at the bottom. You can see all of the statistics in the Journey with Me workshop resource that has been so amazingly prepared and that will act as a resource for you. But the statistics don’t tell the story. It is only when you feel the weight of what is happening through the wait of a refugee, a family waiting for a husband for years and years, the news of relatives drowning in the Mediterranean. When you feel that, there can be no doubt that this is a really dark and difficult time. I think it would be all too easy to say this is Stephen Harper and it is this government. We elected him through our action or our inaction. There are reasons why this government is the way it is and it is not helpful to kind of say “it’s him.” It is something that all of us need to take to heart. I think the deep reasons for the closed door, the closed minds, the closed hearts in our country at this time has something to do with what happens when nation-states become afraid that they have lost control of their borders and their boundaries. It is what happens in the time of globalization—national boundaries are being erased every day through communications, or global economics, or multinationals.

Jenn and I just came back from El Salvador where we see Canadian mining companies destroying the water table of another country. So most countries are afraid that they are losing control of their borders, but instead of dealing with the economics and the politics of that, refugees, people who cross borders, become the scapegoats. We are talking here in Canada about a very small number of people, but this government has ruled by fear, by real fear. Make this a place that is afraid of criminals, afraid of young people, afraid of refugees, and terrible things happen. We know this historically when a country is gripped by fear. People do terrible things, and you know, the work that you are going to do with these workshops and in your churches is not just about refugees. It is about our country. This is about who we are and who we want to be. Do we want to be a small, mean, little country, or do we want to be a country that has vision, that has confidence, that has hope, that has a sense of the future, and that can move to a common sense of responsibility for the world. We have been given this place on earth, not as a possession that we own, that we can extract from, not as something about which we can say “this is mine, not yours. I decide who gets in and who gets out.” We have been given this place to be responsible for, to care for, and to share with those who want to come and live with us in this little space of earth that we call Canada.

We are now living not just in a moment of social injustice—that is too tidy, that is almost too clean. We are living in a moment of social cruelty. And any of you who have had to deal with refugees and try to go through the health system, and have to deal with all of the restrictions and deal with the confusion around the care of the refugees and their families know this. It is social cruelty. But, the good news for me was the number of people, the doctors and nurses for example, who got out on the street in their white coats and said, “No, our oath commands us to care for people who are sick.” The medical professionals are not the most revolutionary group in this country. Are there any here? But they did that, and I think that most people listening to the news, when they heard that pregnant women might not be treated, or recovering from cancer, might not be treated, there was a deep sense of revulsion, a deep desire for decency that reasserted itself, and we take hope in that. That there exists in this country still in spite of everything a sense of decency, a sense of compassion, a sense of generous-spirited living. And the churches are really crucial at a time like this. St. Augustine, when he was writing his classic “The City of God,” a book that took him fifteen years to write, at a time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, said, “there are times when there are pressures in the world (he called it the “pressurae mundi”) when the pressure of the times becomes so intense. He compared it to an olive press, forces are at play, pressures, and it precisely at times like that when you put the olives into the olive press that out comes pure oil. And I think it is something like that, that we as churches are living with. The pressure of the time, can create a pure, a pure, deeper, truer sense of what it means to be Church. It is a moment that can call out everything that is best in us, and it can help us filter out all the stuff that isn’t that important. There is a lot of time we spend on our budgets, our administration, our buildings, we could go on forever worrying about the heat in our buildings, but…why? We are here, who cares if it is cold, we’re here, and we can begin. We can really do something, we don’t have to wait until we are warm, and that’s deadly.  We don’t have to wait until we know every statistic about refugees. We don’t have to wait until we have a new refugee policy. It is now, this is the moment, and this is the message of Holy Week. “Now is the hour.” “Now, the hour has come.” This is the time when the churches can really become the Church of Jesus Christ. We have this call, and we have this moment. And as I said it is not just for the sake of the refugees, this is for the sake of our country, this is for the sake of the church, of our faith that we all share as Christians. We are called to be Christian in this time, and in this place.

Let me just give a small example which I do talk about in one chapter of this book (The Other Face of God). When we first started Romero House we bought, well we didn’t really buy, we put down a small down payment (we have these very big long mortgages, like a hundred year mortgages, nobody will ever own these houses), but in any case, we got houses in this little neighborhood. And I have to confess to you, at the time that we got these houses, we simply had them in that neighborhood because that is where one of the first houses was. It was close to a mosque, an employment centre, and a health clinic, but most importantly it was a no-name neighborhood; it was cheap. I never thought about the neighbours.

So we moved in and in the first year we were extremely focused on building a community of neighbourliness within the houses, myself, the staff, the interns, and the refugees who were arriving.  So we never thought about people around the house, on the street, but they noticed us. They noticed a lot of people in African dress coming into the house and going out of the house, and they noticed their colour, their dress, and they were very upset. And we only found this out when we went to City Hall to apply for a building permit to fix up the garage in the back of the house, so we could fix furniture for the house. As the permit came forward for discussion at the Committee of Adjustment, not only was our administrator there but 25 people from the neighborhood stood up and literally yelled and screamed, “They are going to build a 10 story house, there is going to be prostitution, there will be drugs and refugees running everywhere and our property values will go down.” It was like crazyville, but once we saw the intense rejection, we had to withdraw our application. It was a serious situation. I felt we were not going to make it here. We are not going to be able to stay here.

Then over the next 4 years with no specific plan but really through a thousand acts of daily kindness we all slowly found our way towards each other. Some of it had to do with a wonderful couple who had been to Africa and weren’t afraid of Africans. They threw a barbecue and then I met people who I found were actually really nice, they are not all fascists. They met us and realized, “Hey, they are not all terrorists.” So, it was a thousand acts of kindness, and to make a very long story short, this is what they don’t tell you in these study books, how long it takes, we became a neighbourhood. And the neighbours began to get people jobs, the neighbours began to drop off clothes, to act as translators, and even to ask some people for supper. So the neighbourhood became a place of welcome, not an agency but a neighbourhood. We began to paraphrase the African saying, “It takes a neighbourhood to welcome a refugee, it takes a healthy, functioning, welcoming neighbourhood to welcome a refugee.”

When I told them that is how I understood things, that it was not refugees but building a good neighborhood, when I told them that they said, “But the other side of this is that we didn’t even become a neighbourhood until you guys moved in.” We were all just living in our little silos, none of us knew each other, but as the great need of the refugees became more obvious to them, they began to move out of their single family dwelling or their place.  They moved out and in the process they began to know each other. We found out, for example, that we have a very old lady on the street with an alcoholic son who basically wasn’t getting enough food and we began to take meals to her as a street. So they said it is also true that “it takes a refugee to make a neighborhood.”

Analogously, it takes a good and just country to welcome a refugee. it takes a good and just church to welcome a refugee, but it is also true that it takes a refugee to help build a good and just country. In the end as you work with refugees you realize that what they need most is not our money, and this and that, they trust and need this country to be good, to be decent, and to be just. They count on the system of justice in this country, and it is also true that they summon us to become a church, a good church, a faithful church, a just church. And I think any of you who have sponsored refugees or worked with a refugee, you know that you have been summoned to become a deeper, truer church in the process. So there is a double movement.

I think what you were doing with this resource is remarkable, and as you actually begin to use it, I think that you may be tempted as I am frequently, to use it to evoke a guilt feeling in your congregation—there are so many refugees, we are not doing enough. I find that guilt gets you action, but for a very short time. It actually doesn’t work for a long time and doesn’t work well, and your resource refers to that. I would simply say that in my experience there are two fundamental attitudes deeper than any of those statistics that we use that can actually move people to respond to refugees in a happy way, in a joyful way. I can’t tell you but Jenn can tell you how much fun we have living with refugees, working with refugees. We have lots of hard times, but it is actually fun. We have wacko moments, you know that are really great. In terms of people being moved to help the stranger, who they don’t know, that is the key thing, in my experience there are two things that move people. The first is gratitude, and the second is a sense of summons or being called to do this. When I think of gratitude as a fundamental religious attitude, it is not about having this or that thing, or thinking about all that I have, all my friends, all my things that have been given. That is secondary. Fundamental gratitude begins with the shocking awareness, “I am alive. I am here. I have this one life; I have been given this one great chance, not a perfect chance, but a good chance. I have been given this time. We can spend hours, days, and years thinking about all things that are not right about our lives, with our culture, with our church. You know, the work is never quite good enough, but when you think beyond that, you can say, “Such as it is I have been given this one life.” When you come to that, it is a freedom and you just want to give it away. It is really grateful people who give, not out of guilt, but just because they want to. They want to open the door—they are not afraid.

The second thing that I have seen, and I think this is especially true within the Reformation traditions, it is an amazing gift is when a person feels summoned, summoned by the call of another person. A person either directly or in front of you or through a letter, or through an invitation through your church the person basically comes to you and says, “Please help me” and you feel summoned, commanded, invited, or called. When that happens, nothing can shake it, nothing. It becomes a command that only you can respond to. I just want to read a section from this book in which I tried to describe that moment:

“There is knock at the door of the place that structures everything that is familiar and safe. It is only the sound of one hand knocking. You can choose not to answer. For reasons unclear even to yourself you open the door slightly and see the eyes and then the blur of a face as it looks down and then up again. It is the face of a stranger, the face of a woman. You do not know who she is, and you do not know who you are. You could close the door—perhaps she senses this. The face of the woman with a voice says, “Please help me.” You could say no. “I am too busy, I am too tired, it is too late, there are other places you can go, I do not know what to do.” You used to know before you learned how the system can file people away forever. But you are here, here and now, the one, the one who must respond. This is the question, there is no other. You have been faced. The stranger moves forward and fills the frame of your mind and slowly comes into focus and you become focused. Your life becomes weighty, consequential, and significant.”

As I read this analogously for a church group--“We used to know before we learned how the system can file people away forever. But we are here, here and now, the ones, the community that must respond. This we must do, there are no others. We have been faced. The stranger moves forward and fills the frame of our church, and slowly comes into focus and we become focused. Our lives become weighty, consequential, and significant.”

So that reading is obviously based on a personal encounter and I think the great strength of this resource you are launching today are the stories of refugees. In my experience, it is only the stories that move people in a moral sense. They begin to see the world with a moral imagination to be able to look at the world from another’s point of view. If all we have to go on is statistics about how bad it is, nothing will happen. The numbers are numbing.  We know this from all kinds of justice work. I remember working in the peace movement, and being really upset at the thought that there were 200,000 nuclear warheads instead of 100,000, as if that made any difference. It is crazy, as if it made any difference. It can lead to “psychic numbing” as Robert Jay Lifton has written about. But when refugees have a name and have a face and a story, that is when we begin to know who we are. It is a double-sorted thing. We need to be with actual refugees, real people, to move us to action and to respond. When a real person is in front of you, you don’t say, “I have another commitment, or I have to read another book, I have to study this more. You can’t do that. A real person moves us. We might make mistakes, but we begin to come into focus as a person and as a Christian.

Jenn and I just returned with a group from El Salvador, where we heard and attended a theology congress about liberation theology and the poor. We actually did meet some very, very poor people, but the central message that we were getting both theologically and experientially is that poverty is just a category. It’s not just about people not having things, not having schooling, not having a place to live or grow. It is not only about that, although that is crucial. It is the terrible human experience that your life has no significance. You’re not a consumer, so you don’t enter into any big economic calculation. You’re not a voter. Refugees don’t vote. They don’t have a lot of power. You’re not a tax payer. You’re insignificant. And the message of Jesus, we read all of those stories of His encounters with people—He recognized them, He saw them, and He said to them, “Your life matters, it is important to Me.”  

Even in the brief time that I have been here this morning, talking with Ruth from Peterborough, who has waited for years for someone to come to sponsor a refugee, but we don’t let go of that and we continue to say to that family, “Your life matters, it counts, we have not forgotten it. The government wants to forget about you, but we remember you and your life is important.” It is our way of preaching the good news in this time and in this country. I really believe that if we do this, and when we do this, when we act as a Samaritan church, we will be blessed. We really will be blessed. I think we have had the experience of church groups who sometimes feel more like the man by the side of the road, beaten up, forgotten, and wounded, but refugees walking by the wounded church by the side of the road say “I don’t care if you are all together. I don’t care if you’re not as holy as you would like to be, or as just as you like to be. I need you to get up. I need you to walk. I need you to be a good church. I need you to be a just church.” 

Thank you.

[Image: Photo of Leddy taken by Laura Wall]

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