Friday, September 18, 2015

unfathomable






(Note:  this blog entry includes graphic descriptions of violence against human beings as described in a refugee’s account of civiI war)


 I was sitting in a circle of 12 or so people at the (then) Trinity Conference Center in Cornwall, CT.  We had just finished a sumptuous dinner that included roast pork with a cherry demi glaze, curried couscous and slender spears of steamed asparagus.  There was a salad bar with field greens and lightly fried quail eggs.  Chocolate torte with fresh raspberries for dessert.  No kidding.  Sumptuous.

I was there for the opening retreat of my doctoral program at Hartford Seminary.  After dinner we gathered in the big living room in front of a massive stone fireplace and began our introductions.  I remember being excited and feeling pretty good- of the dozen or so who were gathered, I was good friends with at least half of the participants including two women with whom I had been ordained, years before. It was an especially “Episco-centric” class that fall for Hartford Seminary.

We sat in a big circle and began an ice-breaker led by one of the seminary faculty. We were asked to answer the following question: “If ‘they’ were making a movie about you- the story of your life- what scene would you insist on being included in the movie?  A scene that, at all costs, should not hit the cutting room floor?  A scene that is significant to who you have become?”   We pondered for a moment and then someone spoke.  Now, this was a pretty impressive group of individuals who probably had some interesting things to say.  But I can’t remember any of them- because of the man sitting to my right. He was one of the folks in the room that I did not know.  We went ‘round the circle sharing our significant moments.  The stories were coming in a clockwise fashion. I had my story all tucked up in my head, ready to launch when the man to my right, the one to go just before me, spoke:  He began in a low, deep voice that seemed to come up from his shoes. It was slow and gentle. He spoke deliberately, in a measured voice, as he told us about his rescue by US Marines while under fire in his village in Liberia during the (second) civil war.  He told us about hiding his pregnant wife in a closet with their toddler while waiting for the rescue forces to arrive.  He told us about running to the helicopter in the center of the village square, dragging his wife to safety with his little boy tucked under his arm.  He told us about his parishioners who cried out to him to take them, too, and his anguish at leaving them, ‘een with knowledge of more rescue forces on the way.

Unfathomable.

We sat in stony silence. 

Something about the feast that we had just enjoyed- that precious little dinner- rose up in my gullet, as it dawned on us all what a chasm there was between field greens with quail eggs…. and the good fortune of just being alive.  Alive to tell the story.

It has been estimated that between 150,000-300,000 people died in the 4 year Second Civil War of Liberia, 1999-2003. (http://wars.findthedata.com/l/157/Second-Liberian-Civil-War)
Another 200,000 died in the first civil war (1989-1996) and both of these wars resulted in literally millions of refugees seeking sanctuary across the globe.


J. Kpanneh Doe, leader of the Coalition of Professional Liberians for Grassroot Democracy wrote this frightening and graphic description of the refugee experience in his article, “Liberian Refugees: A Nation in Exile” (www.theperspective.org)

Refugees have common experiences … which are deepened and striking. Their tales of horror are similar, and the stories of carnage beyond imagination. All have experienced some of the most unspeakable violence and crimes against humanity ­ extermination, murder, torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, and other inhumane acts.

There are no shortage of stories of some of the most despicable horror refugees have experienced. For example, there is the commonly told story of families being separated ­ the men taken apart from the women ­ whole villages being razed and burned to ashes, mass killing and extinction, people being doused with gasoline and set on fire. Then there is the raping and slashing of pregnant women stomach and their newborn taken away and dumped into the river. Needless to mention, the chopping-off of hands with an axe, the smashing of kneecaps with a hammer and cutting of throats with knives. These stories are graphic as they are shocking.

But there is one touching story which seems to crown it all: This has to do with a five-year-old girl whose fingers were chopped off. She asked innocently, "when will my fingers grow again?" … this (also) typifies a pattern of gross human rights abuse throughout the continent.

Sadly, this experience, as Kpanneh Doe describes it, is not unique to those forced to flee their homeland of Liberia. There are refugees born of many different civil conflicts around our world, and their experiences are devastating.

I write about the Liberian crisis, this morning, because it is the one with which I have had any tiny bit of understanding- thanks to the man who sat next to me that night in the circle. 

When I was a teenager, our parish church assisted in the re-settlement of some “boat people” from Bosnia. We found them a run-down but clean apartment in the city and gathered together home goods from parishioners:  beds, sheets, pots and pans. We loaded all of this stuff into  the apartment and watched, in wide-eyed wonder, as these grateful and terrified people came through the door- deposited in a strange country with a foreign language, strange food, no jobs and no transportation. 

Perhaps you have your own refugee resettlement story.  I pray that you do.
Because it is when we make a personal connection that the distant, intellectually processed story moves from vague detachment… to… unfathomable… to the slightest shade of understanding.  And it is in the understanding that we are pulled to action.

Currently, there is a refugee crisis in the Middle East that has captured the daily attention of our newspapers and relief agencies. The Syrian refugee crisis is not new- the current civil unrest has been active since 2012- and there are now more than 4 million refugees seeking safety. (http://www.vox.com/2015/9/4/9261971/syria-refugee-war)

Our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori has directed our attention to the work of our Episcopal Migration Ministries and issued a call for us to respond to this crisis of epic proportions.  Here is a link to the Presiding Bishop’s message of earlier this week: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/episcopal-presiding-bishop-statement-refugees-congregational-and-individual

Last week I contacted Charlotte Fry, the State Refugee Coordinator of the Department of Human Services here in Harrisburg, to open a conversation about what is happening here, in our region, and the possibilities for our involvement.  Not coincidentally, a deacon, moved by the Holy Spirit, also approached me this week to inquire about our participation. The website www.refugeesinpa.org shows statistics of 710 refugees being resettled in our region of Central PA in the past year, 13 of them, Syrian.

This is work that takes place resettling one family at a time. It is rescue work. It does not wipe away the significant need that we have, domestically, in our own cities and towns, but it is a response to a special call to reach out to the alien, who is without home.  The book of Leviticus directs us, as Judeo-Christians :  “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

While we save these fragile lives one at a time, we are called to work together, as the Body of Christ.

Please contact me if you are interested in pursuing opportunities for our Episcopal engagement of the refugee crisis here in Central Pennsylvania. Perhaps you are already involved and are looking for partners in your work. I look forward to learning more about how we are addressing this need and how we might work together.







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