Posts Tagged ‘Immigration’

I Know a Syrian …

I know this Palestinian from Syria. He is a dental surgeon. He is working at a gas station – the kind where the attendant sits inside a cubicle and people slip their money under the depression in the counter before they buy their gas.

The number of Syrians who have fled their country is in the millions. It is getting increasingly difficult for them to find a new place to call “home”. The news this morning tells me that 24 governors of American states have said their state will not accept any refugees from Syria.

The dental surgeon is married to a woman who was a High School English Teacher when they lived in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria. She was able to get a job as an aid in one of our local public schools.

The couple literally ran for their lives when they left Yarmouk. The handwriting was on the wall regarding the turmoil that is the result of the Assad regime. With an uncle in the US, they had a place to land. They knew that whatever they left behind they would never see again – which was not only true for their material possessions, but may well be true for loved ones as well. With their three children, they ran; and when they got to the US they had a place to land – at least for a while.

The United States has welcomed – if we can call it that – 1,900 Syrian refugees in the last four years. But if the governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas – three states who have heretofore received a large number of refugees from Syria – there is no place for a Syrian to call home there. Whether or not governors have the authority to enact such a policy is debated.

The eldest of the three children had completed one year of university. While the family is seeking asylum there is little by way of assistance for them. It was a high hurdle just to get the necessary documentation for them to be able to legally work. But when that documentation came they went to work with a vengeance. That eldest child also got a job. Hoping to major in Computer Science, he got a job at a convenience store. And after a log of letter-writing, hand-wringing, pleading, he got into Champlain College on a scholarship.

Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush say the US should admit Christian refugees, not Muslims. Pres. Obama has responded: “We do not have religious tests for our compassion. That’s not who we are.” But is that who we are becoming?

The two girls were in their Junior Year in High School upon arriving in the US. They finished at Burlington High School. Motivated, willing to work, wanting to contribute, they got jobs. One of the girls is matriculating at UVM, hoping to get into Medical School. They other is taking classes at Community College of Vermont and plans to attend UVM full time next year.

The logic behind Sen. Cruz’s concern is the inability we have to determine who is and is not a terrorist. The New York Times describes this as “The intersection of the refugee crisis with the nation’s immigration debate.” What this means essentially is that compassion has collided with politics; and when that happens empathy takes a back seat.

“This is for our children.” That’s what the surgeon-turned-gas station attendant and teacher turned aid say. Those scholarships are coupled with some loans and the entire family works to insure that rent, utilities and loans are paid every month right on time.

Technically they are Palestinians; but they have lived for decades in Syria. So I feel like I can say: “I know this Syrian …” and I have to say that I am humbled by their work ethic, awed by their intelligence, inspired by their devotion to each other, and so very grateful that they are our neighbors. I only hope they will continue to feel welcome in our midst and know they are loved.



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Text:  Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17; Micah 6:6-8; Psalm 112;  Matthew 22:34-40

In the First Century, says the Talmud, Joshua ben Gamla instituted schools in every town in Judea and made formal education compulsory.[1]

In the midst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther “advocated compulsory schooling so that all parishioners would be able to read the Bible themselves.”[2]

In 1616 every parish in Scotland was mandated to establish a school – paid for by parishioners.

Mandatory public education in the United States began in the early 1920s, mostly as a reaction against Catholic schools and the influence of immigrants.[3]

Today we begin a series of messages called “What We Teach … What We Learn”.  With people back to school after the summer break, we want to explore some biblical stories and mine them for what they might have to say to us about lessons learned in the various stages of life.  But before we get to children, youth and young adults, folks in the middle and later years of life, we want to start with the subject of “mandatory education”.  What are the essentials in order to live a meaningful and joyful life in the times in which we live?

Religious people have always struggled with knowledge, or so it seems.  It is only in recent history that any measurable portion of the world’s people were “a-theistic”.  As far back as Socrates, 400 years before the birth of Christ, there was a sensibility against asking questions that threatened the conventional – read religious – assumptions.  It just wasn’t cool to question the ‘gods’.

Our own Bible has strains of prejudice against learning and questioning.

The Scripture from Genesis instructs the first humans not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.Eating an Apple

Pretty much everyone believed in some kind of “god” or “gods”.  But with the rise of the “Enlightenment” in the 18th Century, reason and the critical appraisal of ideas began to step on the toes of religion in Europe and America.[4]  Enter: Science.  Religion recoiled at the idea that mysteries extending back in time might now be explained.  What we had long believed was giving way to what we could now know.  David Bazan’s song lays out the problem:

All this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree?  The only thing that separates us from a perfect life is a piece of fruit?  You expect me to believe that?  In just the several verses of his song, Bazan first dismisses a long held faith, and then is just as critical of the “knowledge” that was supposed to usher in the New Age.  “Ignorant” – that is, without knowledge, “we were hungry,” he sings.  But “information” hasn’t been all that helpful, either.  At least, not in terms of what it takes to make us “good” – to make me a “decent human being”.

For those of us who take the Bible seriously, we recognize that Bazan is coming to this party somewhere between Twenty Five Hundred and Three Thousand years late.  The tension between faith and knowledge exists in our Scriptures.  Genesis tells us the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to be avoided at all costs, while the prophet Hosea tells us that we are “destroyed for lack of knowledge.”[5]  But if not knowing is what keeps us alive, and not knowing is what kills us, what are we to do?

Bazan’s song taps into something that is pretty much universally felt – the longing to be a “decent human being”.

What is required of us for us to live our lives as “decent human beings”?

This week, as I asked people to identify what they would like to have “mandated” as things everyone should learn, one of the most common responses I got was a question.  Do you mean “skills”, or “values”? I was asked.  “Values” won the vote hands down.

The text from Genesis can be taken literally if you want; but don’t miss the point.  Knowledge can be dangerous.  It can be a way for people to lord it over others.  It can’t guarantee that will good will come.  In the book of Ecclesiastes the “teacher” says that for all the wisdom and knowledge he has accumulated, after a while it seemed like he was chasing the wind.  And then, there is the other side of knowing – the burden of it.  What will we do if the Syrian Government used a chemical weapon?  How should we respond?  What do we do with the information regarding the number of people who die from some easily preventable disease?  Ecclesiastes writes: With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.[6]  Perhaps we could also say – the more you know, the greater your responsibility.

Is compulsory education to sentence the wise to a life of turmoil and trouble?

What does the Lord require? wonders the prophet Micah.  People might want to dismiss the question as being too overtly religious.  Who can know what Israel’s God – or any god – truly requires?  And what if there is no god?  One of the ironies of our day is how skeptics chastise people for taking the Bible literally, only to use a literal read of the text as an excuse for its unbelieveability.

Micah isn’t posing a question that applies exclusively to one religious or ethnic group.  He is asking a question so deeply human as to make it sacred.  What is required for the “good life”?  The list of sacrifices that we read in Micah 6:6-8: burnt offerings; thousands of rams; ten thousand rivers of oil; our own offspring … is a way of trying to help us to learn a lesson early in life, when it can do us the most good.  Don’t wait until you are on your death bed to come face-to-face with what life requires of you!  It’s too late then.  The prophet teaches us that you can be the most religious person in the world and still not experience the depth of blessing life has to offer.

Micah lays out three things for us – Justice, Mercy, and Humility.  To “walk humbly with your God” is to walk in humility all the time.

This isn’t what “God” requires only for those who think of themselves as being in the Judeo-Christian stream of spirituality.  Justice, mercy and humility are what life demands of us if we are going to experience as fully as we can what the cup of life holds for us.

Jesus teaches us there is one other thing.  Love.  What is the greatest commandment in the law?  To find that elemental value – that one thing that is so true that all other truths emanate from it.  Love.

The Bible lays out four things that are necessary.  Justice, Mercy, Humility, and Love.

Ernest Johnson was an African American man – well into his 90’s the first and only time I met him.  In this particular church I was serving, it had been customary for Mr. Johnson to come and preach at a Sunday service most years.  I only heard him once because his advanced age and failing health made it impossible for him to continue.  But the one time I heard him, he did something that left a profound impression on me.  At the conclusion of his message – which was offered in both spoken and sung format, he sang a simple tune.  The melody was buried beneath a voice that had become raspy and an ear no longer very finely tuned.  But I recall the words as if they had been whispered into my ears this morning.  I dun done what you told me to do, Lawd …  I’m sure the man’s age and the effort it took him to do what he was doing is part of the reason the experience is so memorable for me.  But clearly, he wasn’t just referring to the message he had shared or the journey he had endured in order to get to the little village of Groton, Vermont.  This was his end-of-life mantra.  There was both a peace and a power emanating from him because he had done what was required.  The words were sung with no hint of pride or arrogance. They seemed instead to come from a place of certainty and joy, a place of fulfillment.

Together, in community, gathered around a table, where justice demands that everyone have an equal place, and mercy requires us to make room especially for those who might not feel either welcome or worthy; where humility allows us to admit that neither our faith nor our knowledge can ever be depended upon to explain every mystery; and where love is so powerfully present that there can be absolutely no question as to our worthiness of it … Here we celebrate not only what God requires of us.  We celebrate the good life, the abundant life, and all it has to offer us.

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