June 20th is the World Refugee Day. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) started a #With Refugees petition encouraging people to voice their support for basic rights to education, shelter and access to work for refugees. At first I was sceptical – what’s another petition to change? Aren’t the issues connected to the current refugee crises around the world much more complex than a 7-line petition to the United Nations General Assembly?
But just watching the evening news tonight – June 19th – has reminded me that the three counts of education, shelter and work are so much more ambitious than what many are willing to give. A brief piece on the evening news of the Czech public TV said that “11 Syrians” were shot by a Turkish border patrol “while attempting to illegally cross the border to Turkey,” four children were among the dead. There was no commentary in the piece. Why were people “crossing illegally” from Syria to Turkey? Why would Turkey shoot at children at its borders? Perhaps the viewer was presumed to know – after all the Syrian war has been going on for more than five years. But still, the piece reminded me that so often we cannot get from politicians, religious leaders or the media even the word “refugee” to describe (and thus protect under international law) the desperate people risking their lives to cross borders and seas to get to safety.
As I write this post, I am sitting in an armchair with the morning sun streaming into my room in a comfortable house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My senses tell me that the world is a beautiful place and that the world is at peace.
But a few clicks away on my computer there are thousands of refugees stranded in ferry terminals and in muddy fields along the Greek Macedonian border. There are millions of Syrians holding their breath to see if the truce that started yesterday could hold. There are politicians who find it perfectly acceptable to provoke hatred and incite violence, there are “ordinary citizens” – our neighbors, classmates and family members – who find it perfectly acceptable to show up at rallies of these politicians and vote for them.
The words of Pope Francis telling us to “give up indifference for Lent” resonate in my head – yes, of course, I want to do that. I want to care. I want to help. But from this suburban armchair, how do I do that?
I post articles with current news on my facebook and watch the “likes” to see if anyone cares. I sign a petition online asking the government of my country to represent me – me who wants to help the refugees, and not build another fence. I feel a little bit helpless.
But then I remember: The world is a connected place. I might not be in Macedonia but every bit counts. Right here, right now, I need to grasp whatever part of our hurt world is closest to me and from this place within my reach I need to trust that any sparks of light ripples out into our world.
In the Gospel read today in the Roman Catholic Church (Jn 2:1-11), Jesus is a guest at a wedding in Cana and wine runs out during the celebration, His mother approaches him with the “problem” and he directs servants to fill jars with water which then miraculously turns to excellent wine. This is the first miracle of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John. A bit later according to John, Jesus performs a second miracle in Cana when he heals the mother-in-law of Simon Peter.
Turning water into wine at the onset of Jesus’ public ministry is surely an event that has many layers of symbolism. Today, however, I thought of one of the more obvious layers – the miracle of hospitality. Jesus’ gift of wine to the wedding guests offered an opportunity for everyone to stay and celebrate together. The Gospel does not record – but all of us who have ever been to a wedding can imagine – that this gift multiplied into gifts of shared stories, new friendships, making of memories that would be retold every time the wedding – this coming together of two people to start a new family – was talked about.
Hospitality was a core mission of my ministry with the Guests at the Motherhouse. Yes, I called them Guests quite intentionally (and the word made itself at home with our Sisters and other Collaborators). It makes a big difference if we perceive someone as a Guest or if we look at them as a Client or, worse, a Refugee. Language is incredibly powerful and gives us clues of social expectations and power relations. Guests are to be made welcomed and treated with the best that we have to offer. Clients occupy us during business hours – Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Refugees, if they are “true refugees” many would argue, are desperate enough to be satisfied with anything we can offer (even if it is a little wrinkled, past its “best by” date or is done by someone who had no previous experience with that kind of work).
The Germans have another wonderful set of words that are currently part of the public discourse: “Willkommenskultur” – the culture of welcome or “Friedenskultur” – the culture of peace. Similarly, Pope Francis talks about the “culture of encounter.” To these, I humbly offer my own addition: “Gastfreundschaftskultur” – the culture of hospitality.
I sat in a room just big enough for two mismatched beds, an old wooden table and a wardrobe (one side of the door precariously hanging on its hinges). I held in my arms a four-day old baby boy and despite the gloomy weather outside, the room was radiant with joy and wonder. The teenaged mother looked at me as if she still could not believe that something so precious came into the world from her own body. The father could not contain his happy smile. I sat there and thought: “I am a shepherdess and this is the manger of the 21st century.”
Where else today could we encounter the drama of the Christmas story more palpably than in an emergency shelter for refugees? The four-day old baby has already traveled across continents in the womb of her mother – fleeing war-torn Syria, making the dangerous sea passage from Turkey to Greece, then on foot and by train through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria into Germany. They felt together – joined by one heart – the unwelcome of the border patrols, the fear of walking endlessly and hoping not to be caught in one of the European countries where refugees end up behind bars of “reception centers” that look all too much like prisons.
Today, I have the pleasure to share a guests post of Sr. Anita Bolton:
My name is Sr. Anita Bolton and I’m from the American Province of the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer. I journeyed to Wurzburg, Germany on November 1, 2015 following in the footsteps of Sr. Kim Kessler who assisted the refugees during the month of October. During my initial visit to the large Motherhouse dining room for the refugees, I felt anxious and overwhelmed. However, when I met our German Sisters and the refugees for the first time, they welcomed me with warm smiles and caring hearts. “Little by little” I began to feel more at home with these beautiful families from Afghanistan and Syria. Many of these families were Muslims. When I was invited to plan activities for the toddlers and preschool children during the month of November, I had “lots of bubbles” in my stomach. How could I assist the children when I don’t know their language, the pronunciation of their names and their cultural and religious heritage? With the support of Petra Dankova, our Postulant, the volunteers in the dining room, our German Sisters, the parents and the children themselves, I started on this sacred and unchartered path!
December 8, 2015 marks the opening of the Year of Mercy, a year that speaks to me of the promise and the fulfilment of our faith. During Lent 2015, I wrote a poem which – like this blog – traces the (inner) geography of mercy. Let it be my way of proclaiming and celebrating the beginning of this special year.
“…and on earth people will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. […] But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (Lk 22:25–28)
Three times this past week, I stood in the street outside of our Motherhouse and thought – I can’t believe that I am living this, here and now; I always thought that moments like these happened only in movies. But there we were:
On a cold rainy day, a group of maybe 20 people huddle outside of a big gate on a tiny street in the historical part of Wuerzburg, Germany. The men are loading an odd assortment of luggage and plastic bags into a minivan. The women hug and cry. Everyone takes turns thinking of entertainment for the kids, hoping to distract them and spare them from the gravity of the moment. Someone brings a plastic push car and the Ukrainian and Syrian boys take turns riding it. A religious Sister hands out tissues to the women but soon tears spring into her own eyes and she is grateful to get one tissue back to wipe her own face.
It is part of my morning routine: The alarm clock rings, I say my first prayer, then reach for the phone, switch on my mobile data, check my emails and then open the BBC news app. Sometimes, I ponder if I should wait with the news until I am more awake – join my Sisters for morning prayer, eat breakfast in peace and only then let in the world beyond our walls. But somewhere along the way, I have made the decision that I need to know – I am part of humanity and I should know what is going on around the world. Moreover, as one of my professors used to say, it is a crime to work with refugees and not read the news.
So today, about 10 minutes after waking up, I knew that Paris was attacked overnight. This is terrorism at its worst – attacks at random people who want to just go on with their lives. Consciously or unconsciously, from now on, millions of people across Europe will hesitate to have fun on a Friday night. The lingering uneasiness in public spaces that the people of the Middle East or Eastern Africa know for many years have made a gruesome entrance in Europe.
As I reflect upon my month experience in Germany I am feeling very blessed for the things that I have in my life. I realize how this experience of seeing the Guests with just the clothes on their backs has called me to re-examine my own life and what is really important in my life at this time. My basic needs are taken care of and I am truly blessed for the life that I have.