Lady Liberty and ***Hole Places

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Last year, I did something I’d been hoping to do for a while. I drove to the airport to welcome “home” a new immigrant. The international terminal was more crowded, and more diverse, than Epcot Center in summer. In fact, one of my first thoughts was how many people from how many places looked so joyful to be here. For a visit or forever or coming home after a long trip—whatever—they all looked happy.

I’m pretty sure none looked happier than the couple I was with. We were welcoming a husband whose wife had been here for three years. Three years of waiting. Waiting for the face she loved and lost to an ocean of violence. Waiting for the touch to accompany the voice she heard not often enough. Waiting for the wheels of the refugee system to move to allow her husband the same privilege she had been granted. A new life in a new country, away from the terror of their daily existence. I’ve since researched their home country, and daily terror barely seems to cover it.

By the time he got off the plane, he was so tired, he cold barely manage the long-longed-for hug. By the time he boarded the plane many hours before, he had been so tired for so long. I cannot fathom the ability to keep standing, to keep fighting, and to keep hoping. But these people are experts at relentless hope.

How long will it be, I wonder, before he understands the American news well enough to know that not everyone will welcome him with the smiles and handshakes we did? He likely already does. Refugees are a smart lot, and he is far too used to being violently unwelcome not to have analyzed the environment. Being able to read the feeling in the room before you enter means life or death where he has come from. He is no fool, I’m sure, when it comes to knowing the current American ethos of fear and distrust of the different among us.

Yet he comes. For a new chance. For his wife. For freedom. And I am humbled to simply haul suitcases and turn a steering wheel. I am the one who knows nothing in this situation.

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Last summer, I took a whirlwind trip to NYC, and one of the things I most wanted to see was something my great great grandfather saw once, from a ship in the harbor. I climbed her base. I enjoyed the breezes over the water as I squinted all the way up at her crown on that sunny day. I tried to imagine, looking at those words, what it had been like.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “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!”

I know my great great grandfather (one of those apparently welcome Scandinavians, though a peasant farmer in reality) couldn’t read those lines if he saw them. Yet he knew  their intent.

We will take what others discard. We choose the exiles. We welcome the unwelcome.

We don’t actually want your comfortable and your famous. We intentionally want what others might not. We know their worth, both as the images of God in this messed up world but also as some of the most resourceful, capable of survival, resilient people that exist on this earth. We know. Because that’s who has always come to these shores and made us who we are.

It sounds beautiful. It sounds biblical. It sounds like Jesus.

It sounds like the precise opposite of the lines that were supposedly uttered a week or two ago. paraphrased as: “We don’t want your tired and poor, and certainly not your refuse. Refuse is another word for sh**hole, anyway, isn’t it? But that storied pomp? We’ll take all that you want to send.”

What a massive change. And what a horrible, incomprehensible truth that so many of us, people whose great great grandfathers came to that statue, find nothing wrong with the statements other than, possibly, the bad language.

That is the very least of its offense.

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The offense is against those lines of poetry we pretend are so important to who we are. It’s the Statue of Liberty—and to think that liberty is something only offered to a chosen few who are guaranteed to make us greater is to deny the words etched there and the very definition of liberty we fought for.

The offense is against our Lord himself. This is no small thing.

“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4.29)

In other words, don’t use words that abuse people. That’s pretty straightforward. And don’t tell me the words were against countries only, not the people there. You would never accept such a thing said about your country and believe it wasn’t personal. People make up countries. People live in them. It’s all to do with people.

“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!” (Psalm 139.13,14,17)

Presumably, this applies to everyone. Every human. Of every color. In every country.

“So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” (Matthew 10.31) Again, pretty inclusive.

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” (Matthew 25.45) Jesus somehow equates himself with those tired, poor, and huddled refuse.

Sometimes it (our tongue) praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” (James 3.9-10)

This is only offering a bare minimum of scripture that provides the cord between all humans as his image, all beloved by him, and the truth that speaking abusively of any of those images is speaking abusively about God. 

That is not an offense Christians can brush off as “a little bad language.”

I don’t know a refugee or immigrant who cannot tell stories of how beautiful their country was. They have talked to me, with tears in their eyes, of the loveliness of the mountains, the sunrises, and green everywhere. How they long to see it again, but in a state of peace, not horror.

And then they have given thanks for being here, in a cramped apartment, in menial jobs when they are perhaps educated for much more, in places that do not have green at all, working all night and learning English by day. Because they had to leave to save their lives and the lives of their children. They are the strongest people I know.

Their former homes are part of God’s creation—not sh**holes. Their people are as capable of contribution as northern European white people. Possibly more, since they already know more resourcefulness than any of us will ever know. Their names or their children’s names line our lists of Nobel Laureates already.

While we argue about making America get again and wrestle with the desire to return to a time when America was “Christian,” we would do well to remember these very, very Christian words on that statue we proclaim as Liberty. We would do even better to remember how many of our relatives saw those words for the first time from a ship, in a foreign language, and wondered at the welcome they would receive.

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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