Reflections on Refugee Sunday
Yesterday was Father’s Day at my church, and it was also Refugee Sunday. I got some rest, yesterday. But, as I always do, I find myself working, if only in my head, on the nut that can’t be cracked, which is the struggle of being human while poor. As my pastor spoke about the plight of millions of people across the world in war torn countries, I thought of the homeless I know here in St. Louis, who no one thinks of as refugees. I know many of them as friends, as my extended spiritual family. Many of them have grown up knowing me. They consider me kin in a way. And these days we are numbered together as an ignorant lot who don’t know what’s good for ourselves. Why do I say that? Because I work for New Life Evangelistic Center, a church located in Downtown St. Louis. Depending on who you talk to, I am regarded as a pastor who lures people into poverty and keeps them trapped there so I can make money for myself personally. They call me and my father poverty pimps. Some who are homeless see me that way. Some who are condo owners in the neighborhood see me that way.
But how do I see myself? I’m a child of God and all I want is to see all God’s children cared for, to know that they are loved. That this world can be a place of loving care. Where we do all we can to see our neighbors succeed. Sadly, I work in a neighborhood where the definition of “neighbor” has changed. An organization was formed some years ago called Neighbors of NLEC, Inc. It is a nonprofit organization developed to raise support to litigate to have our occupancy permit removed. Being a good neighbor to them is getting rid of the riff raff, namely us. I have friends come up every day and look me in the eyes and say, “How are you, really?” As though they expect me to collapse in front of them and cry. I do get angry. I do get stressed. And what this whole legal battle has shown me is the complexity of some things that should be very simple.
It should be straight-forward that people need a roof over their heads, food to eat, transportation, meaningful work to do, and a means of support relationally. At my Sunday church, New City Fellowship South, we help refugees from places like Eastern Congo and Liberia resettle in St. Louis. We dedicate pastoral staff, deacons, and other resources to helping them reintegrate locally. I learned yesterday that something like 35,000 refugees will be coming to the USA from Eastern Congo. Many will settle in St. Louis. It might never occur to these refugees to ask if St. Louis has its own homeless people here already. The job of the International Institute is to help these to never experience homelessness here. The reality is that some do. Our country is a land of safety, a land of opportunity, a land of peace, where neighbors help one another. That is what we like to believe about ourselves in this country.
In 2002 Danielle Koyama wrote a paper called “Internal Displacement: A Study of Homelessness in the city of Toronto” in which she looked at the United Nations definition of “Internally Displaced Persons” with an eye toward homeless persons in Toronto to see if they met the definition. She wrote from firsthand accounts with persons she knew. She wrote of how the city of Toronto gentrified a neighborhood with a homeless shelter in it and how fifty men were displaced and moved elsewhere. I think of this paper often and I wish there was a way to let my refugee friends from other countries know what’s going on here at home. Why would I bring it up to them? They fled the violence and instability of their homelands, why would they want to know about it here?
As I sat and listened to Pastor Kevin, on Refugee Sunday I heard anew the Word of healing, of redemption, of salvation. The gospel is good news for a world of instability. Psalm 61 says, “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me dwell in your tent forever. Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!”
Refugees, persons who have to flee their homes to avoid violence, having their belongings confiscated, or being evicted by the local authorities, they cry out to God as it were “from the end of the earth, with faint hearts.” Who remembers the refugees? Who remembers where they lived in their homes? They used to be settled, their place was secure. The threat of moving was the furthest thing from their minds. And now they live in a new place, far away, in “the end of the earth.” Refugees teach us just how fragile it is to dwell in houses that can be easily destroyed, on land that can be confiscated or gentrified, among people who are silent up until the time they face you in court and say that you are a detriment to the neighborhood.
God is our rock! There is no safer place to be than in the hands of God, doing the will of God. “Let me dwell in your tent forever. Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings.” To think that God’s tent is our dwelling forever. That His wings are our refugee shelter. There is a confidence in the kingdom of God, that whatever is needed He will provide. I love it that God’s habitation is referred to as a tent here. God is on the move with His people. We cannot expect that God identifies with the established empires of this world. That his interests are in keeping them wealthy, well fed, and safe. That His order is their order and that, as is often assumed, “the poor will come to their senses and begin to live like everyone else.”
Poverty is a constant state of protest, that all is not right in the world. Being poor can never be normal, no matter how hard we work at it, because we know that in an instant we might be stranded, wounded, sick, or beaten up. We might lose a critical document, like our identification, and suddenly our business will be so much harder to do. Being poor means navigating a world not made for us, but for people who are secure. It means knowing that after 9:00pm at night anything we do without shelter is illegal. We cannot live in the parks. We cannot live in the street. We cannot relieve ourselves. We cannot sit, lie down, make a covering for ourselves. We will be forced to hide from the authorities. Refugees indeed. And this in a country that welcomes refugees from other lands!
You might ask me, “How do you fit yourself in there with the homeless who sleep in the street? Surely you have a roof over your head.” And its true, I live in a house I do not own. It has running water and electricity. I drive a car I do not own. My family and I are relatively secure. But every day I meet with people who slept last night in the street. I get phone calls from people whose electric bills will soon be shut off. I high five with children who have only known shelter life and living house to house with family. And as I see it, I can never truly be at home in a land that cannot care for all its people. I do not arrive to save these people everyday. I’m no white knight on a horse come to protect them. As I see it their future is bound up with my own. Together we struggle to survive, and I learn from them, how to take refuge under the shadow of God’s wings—how to dwell in His tent.
What makes this hard is knowing that there are way to many people for me to spend time with. On Monday and Tuesday of this week I may have to get through a stack of meeting requests an inch thick. Simple requests for things like verification of shelter stays, need for bus tickets to get to medical appointments, special requests for clothing, shoes, and food. But this is my time to catch up with people like John or Philip who have been staying in our shelter and on the streets. I listen to their aches and pains. I see the wounds on their hands and feet. I see them pull wadded scraps of paper from their pockets, and sometimes I hold the papers for them. And I realize that I may be the one person today who really listens to them, who makes a connection that lets them know they are valued. That someone knows their plight and is on their side. And on Monday and Tuesday I don’t have time to see all of them. Some of them write out a request and then leave when they see how many more people are coming in for help after them. They leave when they see how long it takes at times to help with one request. Some can’t bear to sit in a sea of strangers, they need air, and after I call their name and they don’t appear, I write N/A for No Answer at the top of their request. Maybe they will return. I wish I could know that John and Philip had rest from all their striving. This is my prayer for them. That they could find rest in God’s arms.
Reflections on Refugee Sunday