At 4 a.m. in the morning, when it was still dark, a huge luxury cruise ship came to a complete stop in the Mediterranean Sea. Far below, shivering and wet, were seven exhausted refugees in a sinking rubber dinghy. They were survivors from war and savagery, desperate to get to Greece, clinging to hope for a better, healthier life.
This is the scenario that we currently read about and see every day in the media. Only this particular event was not in the news. It so happened that I was on the cruise ship that rescued those Syrian refugees. One comment made later in the morning by the Captain, when explaining why he stopped, touched many of us deeply. He said: “The safety and security of every life at sea is of paramount importance.”
Imagine if we all took those simple words to heart – to see all life as of paramount importance. But many of us don’t stop, pay attention, and take action, even to help the distressed in our own communities.
What is it that causes us to hesitate from being as engaged as that captain was? My answer came quicker than I anticipated.
Over dinner on the ship that very evening, the conversation was of course about this rescue. One of the passengers, who appeared well off and was from a prosperous nation, remarked: “Well I don’t see how we can afford to take any more refugees into our country!”
Shocking as it sounded – surrounded as we were by such luxury – this man’s remark is not uncommon; nor, is it new. But such seemingly “sensible economic” arguments disguise and excuse our deeper fears of the unknown – of “the other” – preventing many from seeing the Captain’s view. If we are to really engage with his statement about the value of each life, then we need a new, deeper view of it.
Preparing for the arrival of refugees is not just a question of logistics and money, vital as those things are. If we want our communities to be healthy and growing, both spiritually and physically, then we need to courageously address those disabling and unhealthy suspicions and fears, and engage our hearts.
One example we can consider is a man whose violent animosity against a religious group was well-known in his time. St. Paul (originally named Saul), held deep prejudice towards, and fear of, those who did not see religion and culture exactly as he did. But on the road to Damascus (in Syria) he had a spiritual experience that lifted his limited, fearful view of “the other” to something far better. In that new view, he gained a glimpse of man as not threatening, limited, or ignorant, but as having great value and beloved by God. He spent the rest of his life writing, teaching and healing from that basis.
Thinking about this reminded me of a small town in Maine whose residents experienced a sudden influx of refugees from Somalia.
In 2001, things were not going well in Lewiston, Maine, a predominately ‘white’ town. A steady economic downturn, a loss of young people to bigger cities and a general feeling of hopelessness were pervasive. Then suddenly one day, the residents woke up to discover that Somali refugees were arriving in their town in droves. After the shock wore off, the resentment – and yes, even anger – at this invasion of “others” began to be voiced in the local media. People were fearful that the crime rates would rise. They fretted about more job losses for locals and higher property taxes to pay for the needs of the new residents. Then there was the fear of the new residents’ different religion.
The new immigrants were frequently, and impolitely, told to leave. Things got ugly. Yet, despite the protests, the new residents remained. In fact, more arrived. But instead of increased friction, a beautiful thing began to happen: the community began to slowly change – for the better. More than just becoming tolerant of their new neighbours, the townspeople began to get to know them – their culture, religion and history. Compassion and understanding replaced the fear and ignorance. And gradually, to everyone’s surprise, the town began to thrive again in many new and unexpected ways. As one individual from the town said about this new community:
Just to have an infusion of diversity, an infusion of culture and of youth. Cultural diversity was the missing piece.
And it is beginning to happen here in BC as well. A tiny church in Duncan has successfully sponsored a whole family from Syria. In Victoria, the Muslim and Christian communities are joining together in sponsoring refugees. Other groups are also rallying to help.
Perhaps the experience and action of these communities is what St. Paul meant when he said, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” Rather than threatening to deplete our communities or be a burden to a cherished way of life, we can see that each individual who comes to live here is able to contribute in ways that have the potential to enrich and benefit all. And those gifts have their source in the one Spirit, God. That’s the lesson that the people of Lewiston, Victoria and Duncan are learning. It’s a lesson from which we all can benefit as we experience the wave of refugees in the coming months and years.
This article was published in the Vancouver Sun HERE