Spring Break!

“The sustained effort of writing, of putting pen to paper so many hours a day when there are human beings around who need me, when there is sickness, and hunger, and sorrow, is a harrowingly painful job.”
(Dorothy Day, legendary Catholic social activist, in her autobiography The Long Loneliness)

I do not claim to be a social activist on par with Dorothy Day, but this sentence struck a chord in me when I read it. I haven’t been posting much on my blog lately precisely because I’m too busy with actual human beings to take the time to write. I mentor two refugee families, participate in numerous community meetings, lead a prayer group and a sewing group—all related to refugees and immigrants, and I volunteer in a family immigration legal services office. In the last few weeks alone I’ve accompanied families to meetings, banks, government offices, and doctor appointments; I’ve helped enroll a child in kindergarten, and accompanied her and her parents on her first day of school; and I went with a mom to the apartment management office to complain about a toilet that had been backed up for waaay too long. I’ve translated documents from Spanish to English, brought a new student to register for ESL class, and accompanied an immigrant to a court hearing. And that’s just a sampling. But despite my busyness, my husband and others remind me that writing about my experiences is also important.

Happily, both I and my mentor families were free from work on the two best weather days of the spring break week! On Monday two other mentors met me at the zoo with our refugee family from Democratic Republic of Congo: a single mother and her three daughters. We fed the giraffes, visited the zebras and the African porcupine, the lions, and the elephants. Did you know the Swahili word for lion is simba? And the Swahili for elephant is dembo? The girls climbed on all the elephant sculptures, and I’m pretty sure they spent more than their fair share of time inside the airplane, even in the pilot’s seat. We enjoyed a picnic feast, we rode the carousel, and hung out with the primates. The girls climbed on more sculptures and posed for more photos. It was a fabulous start to spring break.

On Thursday the weather was beautiful again, and I returned to the zoo, this time with my Karen family from Burma. Although I’ve taken this family to the zoo in previous years, the husband/father just arrived in the U.S. a few months ago. He happily took photos of all the animals on his cell phone. The five-year-old daughter raced us through the zoo, with more energy than the rest of us combined. She climbed on all the sculptures; we fed the giraffes and the birds, played in the airplane, had a picnic lunch, and rode on the carousel.

These fun times with my families are just as important as the time I spend helping them navigate the complex systems of our country. Everyone needs a spring break. And while my families can’t afford to travel to California or Mexico, I can help them enjoy a special day, spent with friends and family, reveling in the diversity of God’s good creation. We all need time to have fun and make memories. Not only refugees and immigrants, but their mentors as well. Even our Creator tells us to observe sabbath. We all enjoyed the opportunity to have fun together, relaxing and being refreshed. And now, we’re stronger together to face whatever lies ahead.

Solidarity in Worship: Refugees

Recently I’ve been worshipping in solidarity with my immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters. What began as a demonstration of my support for them has resulted in amazing worship and feeding of my own soul.

Pastor Amy preached an insightful sermon on Matthew 25, educating her congregation about God’s call to welcome foreigners.

The call to welcome and care for those who are vulnerable, including the immigrant and the refugee, is not actually a partisan call. It is foundational to the Christian faith, a faith that is centered on the story of Jesus and that follows the story of the migration and movement of the Jewish people.
(Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite)

Pastor Amy traced the history of migration through the Bible, as well as God’s frequent commands to care for the sojourners in His people’s midst.

At this church the members are encouraged to discuss the sermon with the pastor after the service, pushing back and asking tough questions. This experience was surprisingly encouraging. Most congregants were supportive of refugees, and asked good questions.

The following week we experienced powerful worship based on Psalm 23. Pastor Amy’s friend Elise told the miraculous story of how she survived the Rwandan genocide, after soldiers killed her husband and brother-in-law, and attacked her with machetes. The maggots in her wounds saved her life, as the soldiers who returned thought she must already be dead. After she remarried, the soldiers killed her second husband. Elise and her children are now safe in the U.S. (where she is a citizen!), and she praises God for always being with her.

Every single refugee I meet has a story. They have all—by definition—fled persecution. This is who our refugee resettlement program serves. I stand in solidarity with refugees.

 

 

Solidarity in Worship: Africa

Recently I’ve been worshipping in solidarity with my immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters. What began as a demonstration of my support for them has resulted in amazing worship and feeding of my own soul.

My friend Laurie Raynor and I experienced a beautiful, friendly, joy- and spirit-filled celebration worshipping with our local African congregation. The congregation is made up almost entirely of refugees, all of whom speak Swahili (plus a plethora of other languages). They come from Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, Central African Republic—places they used to call home but had to flee for their lives, places whose governments kill their own people, where civil war seems unending. They’ve all spent years, some decades, in refugee camps or in urban exile. But wow, do they know how to praise God! The choir not only sings, but also dances, leading the congregation in passionate worship of Jesus. The women’s clothing is brightly-colored and so very beautiful. Even some of the men’s clothing is wonderfully colorful. The very colors of their clothing seem to praise God.

My friend Laurie wrote this about our experience:

My mom and I attended an African church service last night, here in town. (Thank you Vicki for the invite!) They made us feel so welcome. Everyone greeted us warmly, including all the young people. No one asked why we were there. We were greeted immediately and asked to sit in the front seats. One woman, finely dressed, said that she would love to sit with us and interpret (the service was entirely in Swahili), the music was so wonderful, I don’t even have the right adjectives to describe…the women wore beautiful colorful dresses, the children ran and played and laughed, the young people, all dressed beautifully for church, even though it was late in the evening, everyone clasped our hands and greeted us with such pleasure…the pastor preached a sermon that was so animated and exciting, you couldn’t help but yell out “Praise Jesus!”, and they had a second pastor translate the entire sermon in English, I’m sure just for our benefit. He preached about Moses and his calling from God in the book of Exodus. It was a sermon I needed to hear. He reminded us not to fear humans, but to always trust God, who has a plan for each one of us. And He hears us. We just need to listen. It really spoke to me personally. When the service ended and everyone was saying their goodbyes, the pastor came to my mom and said that he would really like to pray for her personally because he could tell she was in pain. He promised that his church would pray for her daily. That means so much to me. None of the people we met last night were Kenyans. They were from Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. And yet they were family. I felt like I was at home.

 

 

True Facts about Refugees

I’ve learned over the past months and years that most Americans—including politicians and journalists—know very little about the American immigration system. Let’s review the facts.

1. Immigrant ≠ refugee. Refugees represent a very specific legal category. Directly from UNHCR:

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal, and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

Again, immigrant ≠ refugee. Immigrants choose to relocate; refugees are forced from their homes. Refugees enter the US with special legal status to live and work here.

2. Refugees already face a very strict vetting process. Far and away, the refugee system is the most difficult way to enter the US. It’s exponentially easier to obtain a tourist visa or a student visa. Fewer than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled to a third country. If there is any question about a refugee in the vetting process, that person is not allowed to come to the US. Before being admitted to the United States, refugees undergo multiple security background checks, medical exams, iris scans and collection of other biometric information, in a procedure that takes 18 to 24 months. The average time for a refugee to await resettlement is 17 years.

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3. Since 1980 when the U.S. began resettling refugees in earnest, there has NEVER been a case of a refugee committing an act of terrorism within the United States. San Bernardino? No, not refugees. Boston marathon? Again, no. Please be very careful. Words matter. Facts matter.

4. America is not Europe. Asylum seekers are able to walk, drive, and float into Europe with no screening. Asylum seekers have suffered the same fate as refugees, but they do not have the same legal status. Unlike Europe, America has an ocean, and a strict refugee vetting program.

5. 51% of refugees are children. The US gives priority to family reunification and resettling the most vulnerable.

6. President Obama changed the Cuban immigration policy. Yes, it’s hard on the Cubans. Why? Because it puts Cubans on the same legal footing as all other refugees from all other countries around the world. So whether you like it or not, it’s fair.

7. Research continually shows that refugees are a net gain to the economy, and that refugees are more likely to start their own business than native-born Americans.

8. The recent Executive Orders, even though they are being reviewed, do have an immediate effect on refugees. President Obama set the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States in fiscal year 2017 (Oct 16—Sep 17) at 110,000. The executive orders have reduced that number by more than half, down to 50,000, an historically low number. We have already resettled more than 40,000 refugees this year, in anticipation of reaching the higher number. I personally have friends awaiting the resettlement of family members, who will now have to wait even longer.

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9. Followers of Jesus are responsible to follow what the Bible says about welcoming strangers and foreigners. This should not be a matter of partisan politics; it’s a matter of obeying God…or not. I believe Jesus meant it when He said “Love your neighbor.” And when asked “Who is my neighbor?” the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ story was a hated, half-breed, religiously heretical foreigner.

10. There is something you can do. Get educated—there’s a list of great books here: https://stand4welcome.wordpress.com/2016/08/04/never-too-old-to-learn/

Visit your local refugee resettlement agency. They all offer volunteer trainings.

Volunteer. Get to know some refugees personally.

Donate to your local refugee resettlement agency. Their funding is being cut, and they can use the help.

Turn off the fake news; don’t fall for alternative truth. Counter mis-information and lies with truth. Jesus is the way, the TRUTH, and the life. Truth matters.

 

Author’s Note: The above are true facts I’ve learned from the following experiences: I’ve taught English to hundreds of refugees. I’ve volunteered with the local resettlement agency to mentor nine refugee families who were newly arrived in the United States. I’ve attended numerous training sessions to prepare to do both of those things. I read extensively about refugees. I’ve attended two national conferences on refugees. I’ve traveled to the Arizona/Mexico border specifically to learn about immigration, and to a jail for women and child immigrants in Texas to volunteer as a legal assistant. I’ve taken coursework on Immigration Law, and I volunteer with an immigration attorney in a family immigration legal office, pursuing BIA/OLAP/DOJ accreditation. I’m not an attorney or a refugee, but I do know a fair amount more about refugees—and KNOW more refugees personally—than does the average American, or politician, or journalist….

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’m Reading

I love books. I read mostly non-fiction and memoirs, books based in reality, books that make me think and examine my own life and experiences while learning from others. These are a few of my best picks so far this year.

Seeking Refuge is perhaps the most important book for American Christians to read today. I highly recommend it, as an intelligent overview of the current refugee crisis and what a biblical response should look like. Written by highly-respected leaders of World Relief, a Christian refugee resettlement agency. I’ve heard Matthew Soerens speak, and look forward to hearing him again in May. Pass this book around to your pastors and missions leaders. At the link below you’ll find a 7-day companion study!
https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/2880-seeking-refuge-gods-heart-for-refugees

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Assimilate or Go Home is about a young woman’s experiences mentoring refugees; what she learned about herself, her faith, and her world. This is a book to savor and drink deeply. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

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Small Great Things is a rare fiction pick for me, but it was inspired by real events, and came recommended by a friend who has wonderful taste in books. This is a powerful and thought-provoking novel about racism in America.

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Breakfast at Sally’s is the story of a wealthy, successful businessman who lost everything and became homeless. His memoir will make you question your assumptions about the homeless.

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Honorable mentions:
Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption, by Dr. Vinh Chung
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance

I hope you enjoy reading these books and learn as much from them as I have!

Reunited!

I first met SuLee three years ago. She had recently been resettled in the US as a Karen refugee from Burma, along with her two-year-old daughter. SuLee was a student in required English language classes, where I was a volunteer.

SuLee was a bright and hard-working student. She made friends quickly with the teacher and the other students. One day I wore a small gold cross pendant. I sat with SuLee during our break time, and she noticed my cross; her eyes lit up as she asked me if I love Jesus. I responded yes, I do, and she eagerly told me that she also loves Jesus. That was the beginning of our friendship.

SuLee brought much fun and happiness to our English classes. She was eager to learn and answer questions, and encouraged the other students to do the same. Even with her limited English, she loved to make jokes.

As our friendship grew, I learned that SuLee and her daughter lived only a few miles from me. I asked the local resettlement agency if I could be their cultural mentor, helping with things like giving rides to appointments and visiting in their home. SuLee invited me to her daughter’s birthday parties, and also to Karen worship in her apartment. I didn’t understand more than a few words, but I knew many of the hymn tunes and sang along in English. I took SuLee and her daughter to the zoo, to local parks, and to worship at my church. I collect used children’s books for her daughter, who loves to sit with me and “read.” She also loves to color and play catch with me.

SuLee likes to cook for me when I visit her in her home. She always asks me to pray before we eat, and for three years the prayers always included a common request: Please, Lord, release SuLee’s husband from the refugee camp in Thailand and send him here soon to be reunited with his family.

SuLee and her husband were both Karen refugees from Burma. They met and married in a refugee camp in Thailand, and their daughter is now five years old. Before this couple met and married, they had each begun their resettlement process separately, as single people. For that reason, when SuLee’s process was completed, she was allowed to resettle in the US with their daughter, but her husband was not allowed to go with them.

Three long years later, his process was finally completed. A date was set for him to travel. We waited eagerly, but a few days before his intended travel, it was cancelled. I don’t know why, but he was not allowed to leave the refugee camp. We continued to pray.

Meanwhile, the king of Thailand died. King Bhumibol reigned for more than 70 years, and the people of Thailand loved him. My friends and a little research tell me that the king left a good daughter who loves the people, and a bad son who doesn’t care about the people. Unfortunately, the son was the crown prince, his father’s choice to become the next king. My friends were worried about what would happen next. Would refugees be allowed to leave the country? We continued to pray.

Another travel date was set, December 14. Still we prayed. December 14 came and went. Now SuLee told me that December 22 her husband would come. More prayers. Finally, on December 23, SuLee told me that her husband had arrived the previous night! That news, along with photographic proof, were perhaps the best gift I received this year for Christmas. After three years apart, three years of heartfelt prayers, God answered. God was faithful to reunite this precious family at Christmastime. Praise God!

 

 

 

 

Why I Marched

I’m a progressive Christian, and I’m pro-life. Many people think people like me don’t exist. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one, but I know I’m not alone. Many Christians think that all progressives and liberals are pro-abortion. And many liberals think that all Christians are backward, hateful hypocrites. I’ve heard that the Women’s March didn’t allow pro-life women to march, but nobody asked me to leave. All I felt was love. I’m pro-life, and in a much fuller sense of the word than simply pro-birth. Jesus came to give us life, and life ABUNDANT.

Life begins with conception. Yes. But as a follower of Jesus, my obligation to protect life does not end with a baby’s birth. Jesus calls me to protect life by providing decent healthcare, education, and housing for ALL. Jesus calls me to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. I take Him at His word in Matthew 25. Jesus tells us that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him. He calls me to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the DACA recipients, the refugees and asylum seekers; to protect those who are fleeing war, torture, and violence. Jesus calls me to stand for the rights of women and girls the world over, for people of every color. He calls me to stand for the life and dignity of people with disabilities. I’m even pro-life and pro-equal rights for LGBTQ folks. I take Jesus at His word when He says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

The Bible calls me to steward the environment, which sustains human life on earth. If we don’t take care of the home God gave us, there will not be any life for much longer. Climate change is real.

I’m for Fair Trade. I’m for a living wage. I’m for treating others as I would want to be treated. I’m for loving my neighbor—all my neighbors on this entire planet. I’m for LIFE ABUNDANT, FOR ALL.

Jesus was at the Women’s March. I saw Him. I saw Jesus in the women and girls of all ages. I saw Jesus in the people with tattoos and piercings. I saw Jesus in the men young and old who marched to support women’s rights. I saw Him carrying a sign that read “Undocumented and Unafraid.” I saw Him in the black man who applauded our march with tears in his eyes. I saw Him in the police officers who blocked traffic for us to march safely, and in the people who thanked them for doing their job well. I saw Jesus at the March.

The Women’s March was not a gathering of victims, complainers, or whiny women. It was a demonstration of strength in unity, asking that ALL people be treated with love, care, and respect. The most common chant I heard was: “No hate. No fear. Everyone is welcome here.” It was a demonstration of inclusion, equal rights, education, and health care for ALL. Documented estimates of how many people marched range from 3-5 MILLION. There were hundreds of marches across the country and around the world. Thank God that they were PEACEFUL. No arrests were made at the Women’s March.

Those friends I walked with? Also followers of Jesus. These sisters are women who have slept on floors with me mentoring young teens, inside the local rescue mission. We have eaten together with youth at the local soup kitchen. We have taken young people to the same park where we marched, given sack lunches to homeless people there, and listened to their stories. These women serve with me as volunteers for refugees, teaching them English, mentoring families, and watching the children so their moms can be together and sew. They join me monthly in prayer, and they serve on church committees, trying to teach others how to serve. None of us does these things to earn a reward. Faith without works is not faith at all. Jesus’ followers will be known by their love. Jesus came to:

preach good news to the poor…

proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If we’re following Jesus, that’s where He’s leading.

I marched for my gay friends who love Jesus. I marched for my refugee friends. I marched for my friends who have lived through rape and abortions. I marched for my Muslim friends. I marched for the women who are groped and abused and underpaid every day. I marched for the girls and boys who are marketed and sold for other people’s pleasure and profit. I marched for Native Americans, the only Americans who are not immigrants. I marched to bring liberals and Christians together—the two terms are not mutually exclusive. Jesus told me to love my neighbor, and that’s why I marched. My loyalty is to Jesus, not to any political party. We’re all broken and in need of a savior, and Jesus came for all of us, to bring us life—life abundant.