Friday, February 05, 2016

What's wrong with this picture?

Yesterday, the woman with the job I most envy (she's a flight attendant for American Airlines and flies regularly to Madrid!) sent me this photo from my favorite city in the world. This is the front of what used to be the central post office in Madrid - it is now a cultural and artistic center, with spaces for people to sit and read and enjoy the view over the Plaza de Cibeles.

Did you figure out what's wrong with this picture?
It's the banner.
The banner is in English - in a city where English is spoken almost exclusively by foreigners.
In a city where the language of heaven, Castillian Spanish, is heard at every turn.
So why is this sign in English?
I'm guessing - because whoever made it knew that the refugees are unlikely to speak Spanish
but far more likely to speak and understand English.
So there flies that banner, high above one of the most beautiful and central plazas and roundabouts in the city I love most in the world. Welcoming refugees. Welcoming the stranger.

What else is wrong with that picture? Absolutely nothing.

One thing I do think is wrong is that I haven't seen photos with banners like that on any central, artistic or cultural centers here in the USA. Now I confess that I don't watch the news often and I never read the newspaper, but I haven't seen or heard of any such sights here.

What I have heard is all to the contrary - keep the refugees out of our state, out of our city, out of our nation. Don't let them in. Don't trust them. They are all ______________ - fill in the blank with something horrific and racist and fear-based. Even though everyone I have ever heard say or write such things live in this country because they or an ancestor of theirs arrived here as an immigrant or a refugee from across an ocean. The people who were already here when those immigrants, those refugees arrived nearly 400 years ago, were subsequently diseased, displaced, exterminated, and those who dared to survive all that were placed on reservations.

I can only imagine what this nation would look like and be like if they had the power to enforce declarations like, "Keep them out. They are all ____________________. Don't trust them. Don't let them in."

Nowadays, we struggle with other types of refugees. Homeless people. Mentally ill people who do not receive adequate mental health care. The poor. The sick. The enslaved. The trafficked. The outcast. We refuse to allow low and mixed income housing in our neighborhoods. We refuse to allow children of all levels of income and privilege to attend school together. We refuse to worship with people who look and live differently than we do. We turn away with disdain and mutter, "Not in my backyard."

Don't even get me started on slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing racism against Americans of African descent. It's black history month - the shortest month of the year, of course - and I am being reminded every day this month of all that we have already overcome - and all that is yet to be done. A reasonable argument could be and has been made that African Americans continue to be treated like unwelcome refugees right here at home.

Our banner, if we were courageous enough to hang it in public, would say, "Tired, poor, huddled masses, wretched refuge, homeless, and tempest-tossed, you are not welcome here."

Here's the painful thing - I have to confess that I don't do well with houseguests. I mean, friends come and stay with us for a few days. Perhaps even a week or two. But I get antsy. I need my solitude and silence. I need to not have to drive people everywhere and make sure that food issues are resolved and floors are clean and towels are available. So I don't think I could handle having a refugee family live in my house for months at a time.

But I can and I should hang out a sign of welcome on my face, in my interactions, even in confrontational exchanges - I must be a gracious host everywhere I go. At Loaves and Fishes. When I disagree with someone's political position. When my children speak their mind. When I am approached by someone living with homelessness. When I am engaged in uncomfortable exchanges at seminary. At church when I see someone I don't know. At the supermarket, even when women remove their purses from their buggy when they see me approach. In my neighborhood, when I wave at passersby and they don't wave back (for those of you who don't live in the south: we wave at people who drive in our neighborhoods. The polite and expected thing is to wave back.)

"Refugees welcome."

Cuz aren't we all refugees?
Escaping some form of emotional, physical, spiritual oppression?
Aren't we all running away from our secrets and shame?
Aren't we all being pursued by faces and ghosts of blunders past?
Aren't we all in search of safety, refuge, comfort, and welcome?

Isn't fear the main reason that we seek to keep "them" out, whoever that "them" may be?
Aren't we afraid because we think others just might do to us what we have done to them?
We belittle and humiliate others.
We criticize them.
We reject them.
We insist on them serving us.
We harbor our suspicions and prejudices.
We mindlessly spout stories and accounts we have heard, even though most of us have never suffered at the hands of anyone we think we are justified in rejecting.
We refuse to lay our weapons of mind and soul destruction down.
What if "they" treated us the way we treat "them"?

So when "they" cross our borders,
whoever "they" are,
wherever we build our borders,
our fear of all things and all people and all practices that are not our own
dictates our response.

We say thoughtless things like, "Better safe than sorry."
Is it really better to be safe than sorry?
I read a book today at 24/7 that posed the question -
imagine if God had acted that way?
imagine if God decided that it was better to be safe than sorry,
and Jesus decided not to come to earth after all?
Being born to an unwed teenage mother in ancient Israel is not safe.
Choosing fishermen and tax collectors and former prostitutes and lepers
and hungry people and poor people and outcasts as your friends is not safe.
Rebuking the religious authorities,
knocking over tables in the temple,
touching the untouchable,
walking on the water in the midst of a storm,
remaining silent when the governor questioned him,
being nailed to a cross and buried in a tomb -
none of that was safe.

Standing with those who cannot stand for themselves,
speaking with those whose voices are usually unheard,
sitting with those who sit alone,
speaking against those whose voices dominate.
standing against perpetual mistreatment,
sitting at tables of powerful people and challenging them to be kind and compassionate -
none of that is safe.

But that is what we are called to do.
That is what I am called to do.
That is the right thing to do.
That is the just thing to do.

I wish I could spend most of the rest of my life living in Madrid, walking past that roundabout every week. Sipping hot sweet coffee a few mornings a week. Improving my Spanish. Learning how to make paella.
Unfortunately, that's not going to happen.
Perhaps where I can actually spend the rest of my life is
in the roundabout of living out the message on the banner that hangs above la plaza de Cibeles.
"Refugees welcome."

Welcome in my backyard.
Welcome in my front yard.
Welcome in my church.
Welcome in my friendships.
Welcome in my heart.
Maybe, someday, as God sets me free from my attachment to the quietness and coziness of my house, maybe someday I will even be able to welcome refugees into my home. That's a mighty big maybe...

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