There is a great deal of talk worldwide about refugees and people act like it is a new thing. It isn’t. Strictly speaking we are all refugees in that the word quite simply means “displaced person”. At some point, we all have felt out of place, or at least, out of step. It is when I am most out of step that faith gives me strength and greater understanding, the chaos helping me realize the sanctuary faith affords.
It was on my twentieth birthday that the rector stuck his head in the choir room after the service to tell me I had volunteered to be the youth minister. I walked from the university to church but he had found me rides and so, as a most reluctant college junior, I found myself preparing for our first event – a refugee supper. In the 1970’s the national church had a campaign to assist those coming from Vietnam. We were to prepare a typical meal for these refugees – rice and soybeans. Each plate consisted of one cup of rice and soybeans – a dull plate of white, rather tasteless food. We served five hundred and made more than expected but what really affected the kids was the blandness and lack of color of the meal. These kids who never ate their vegetables all brought vegetables to our next pot luck. These kids who had protested eating vegetables their entire lives now realized what a gift they were on the dinner table and how lucky it was to have them to eat.
In the 1990’s, as the director of a professional children’s choir in York, PA, we were asked to sing a sidewalk concert outside the prison for a group of illegal detainees from China. Known as the men of the Golden Venture, these men were held for over four years and became famous for the 3-D origami art they created while there, buts of paper napkins folded into beautiful works of sculptural art. These refugees showed me an example of finding sanctuary in their faith and hopes. These were people trying to escape a Communist regime that allowed for no one to be a dissident; no freedom of thought respected. Eight hundred men and women had attempted to flee the harsh conditions of their lives. Their ship, the Golden Venture, did not complete the journey and some perished in the ocean before being pulled out, only to be arrested and some, eventually returned to China.
Eight years later while working for a state agency I walked into a home of what seemed like a strange group of refugees. It turned out I had walked into a human trafficking ring. My faith gave me strength to help disband it, wading through all the necessary agencies to report it and make sure the case was not lost in the myriad of cases that existed.
My experience with refugees, both legal and illegal, is that all are seeking sanctuary. I am at times a displaced person, someone trying to find their way in life. There are sixty-eight Bible verses about “sanctuary” but it really hits home to me when we sing it. “Lord, prepare me to be sanctuary – pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.” Sometimes we seek the sanctuary and sometimes it is up to us to be it.
I have been lucky in my life, although not as lucky as some. Usually my displaced feelings come from peer pressure, not attempts on my life nor missiles and bombs exploding in my ear. Still, life is not a competition and displaced feelings are valid regardless of their level of threat to our well-being. The saving grace in life comes not just from our beliefs and faith but from our actions.
I believe that the world needs more bridges and fewer walls. When we connect, we build bridges and recognize how similar we really are. The world benefits from our connections when we build them. Such human bridges serve to strengthen our world and create a better future for us all. The world will never have enough sanctuaries and it is up to each of us to help build them.