Saturday, February 22, 2014
Link Teen Leadership met for the first time this past week! Can't wait to unveil the business that is being incubated this Spring!
All those who work for me know that I have always welcomed strangers. Job 31:31
Twelve hundred Burmese refugees have entered our community over the past four years. Escaping refugee camps and persecution, they found their way to America's Midwest with dreams of freedom and creating a better future for their families.
To help with their acclimation to the Cedar Valley, the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants funded a staff member for fifteen months to set up a hub and serve the Burmese community by helping connect them to services, apply for citizenship, assist them with learning English, and more.
The intent was that the USCRI staff person on the ground would develop a strong volunteer base that would continue on with her work after the funding for her position dried up.
That volunteer base didn't develop, and with just a few weeks left before her work is to end, Ann Groves, the USCRI staff, called two community meetings so that she, as well as members of the Burmese population, might communicate their needs.
That is how I found myself in the basement of the First United Methodist Church in Waterloo a few weeks back. There are at least four Burmese families renting homes in the Walnut Neighborhood, and a few friends from the neighborhood church, Harvest, felt the tug of the Holy Spirit to go to one of the meetings and invited me along to learn about our new neighbors.
The meeting started with a mixer. There were approximately 20 Burmese friends, 4 of us representing Harvest and the Walnut Neighborhood, and about 8 others, some representing the university in our community, UNI.
Through translators, I learned that many of the Burmese adults have found work at Tyson fresh meats. I learned that there are few translators in town, and that the few are burning out as they receive calls for help every hour of the day. I listened to a man stand up and describe how much his people want to thrive and not be a weight or burden in the community. I listened as another man stood up and shared his disillusionment in the America that he believed would be good and welcoming and helpful and full of resources. I could hear his frustration as he stood and promised the USCRI worker that his people would come alongside her as they learned English to be the volunteer help she was seeking...if only she would please stay. From what I could gather, I learned that the volunteer group that has been most responsive to the needs has been a volunteer group from the university that has helped provide English tutors on Saturday mornings.
As I sat and listened to the people request assistance from the broader community, I experienced so many emotions and thoughts. In 1992, Mike and I spent three weeks backpacking in Thailand. We did a weekend trek in northern Thailand and walked through a few Karin villages. Some of our new Burmese neighbors are from the Karin tribe. I tried to imagine my family suddenly transplanted to one of those villages and attempting to survive in a radically different culture with a radically different language. I tried to imagine what it would be like if most of the village residents were otherwise occupied with their families and lives and unwilling to acknowledge or help us.
I also had a palpable sense of Jesus in the room. From New Testament passages that share who Jesus hung out with to Old Testament passages that reminded the Israelites to welcome the foreigner by remembering that they were once foreigners in Egypt, I knew that on that particular Saturday, if Jesus were in town, he would have likely been sitting there in the church basement. And I remembered that I once was a foreigner in Egypt as well.
As I looked around the room throughout this time of listening, I thought about the grand opportunity for the collective Church to be the incarnation and hospitality of Jesus, but I wasn't hearing or seeing much evidence of the presence of the Church outside of a few exceptions. I couldn't help but ask myself, "Where is the Church these days? What is she caring about? What bothers her? What does she value? How does she spend her time locally?" Which led me to ask the same questions of myself as a member of the body of Christ.
I spent a littlte time considering why the Church...why I...haven't been more welcoming to the stranger. I do understand that there are many needs in our community/world and that churches have unique callings and focus areas. I also understand that we can't do everything, but I do find it somewhat strange how anemic the corporate Church's presence and service seems to be in the margins. Here's my attempt at unpacking why I believe this is true...at least for me.
I've largely bought into the American dream model of family and security rather than a biblical model of family and security. In doing this, it's easy to become self-protective and promote myself and my family rather than the common good. In Jeremiah 29:7, God's instructions through Jeremiah to those exiled in Babylon were this: "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." I've been led astray by believing a non-existent verse that lies to us, saying, "Seek the peace and prosperity of your family, for if it prospers, then the city too will prosper." Don't mistake me for being anti-family or not caring about my family. I love my family. But I believe there's a subtle yet powerful deception that has created fear-based, self-protective family life that models after this world rather than the Kingdom of God. In the early Church during a plague, Christians came back into the city to care for those who were sick and dying and in need of help. While the secular world was making an exodus, the Church came toward the need in order to be Christ's merciful and loving presence. Today, those in the Church who are also in power have generally made an exodus from our city centers across our nation in the name of protecting and promoting our families.
I'm discovering what damage this decision is causing to our souls, our lives, our community. In the quest for security, comfort, good education, prime real estate, etc., I am beginning to recognize the ramifications of insulating our lives from not only the foreigner, but also from so many others. Because we've intentionally decided to be separate and distant from some, it is no wonder that our values, time, thoughts, gifts stay centered inside the wants and needs of "Disneyland" and rarely go to the margins for any length of time. I know that it's complicated and is more than the choice of physical or social location..it's really a heart issue and a which-Kingdom-are-we-serving issue regardless of where we live, but our choices of physical and social location really do matter in the shaping of our attitudes and lives. For example, my decision to live away from many of the neighborhoods that our Burmese neighbors can afford keeps them out of my sight and out of my mind. I simply do not see them as I work to advance my family.
These past few years, as I've located part-time in the Walnut Neighborhood, I am recognizing the cost of decisions made that I once thought were healthy decisions for myself and family. Seeking things like safety, education, and comfort, I've often sacrificed the development of things like compassion and community.
I know there are a million and one examples of Christians shining Christ's light into our community. I'm not dismissing those. I'm just writing about our systems that seem to keep everyone going around the same mountain no matter the individual good works that are going on. There are powers and principalities at work in our world that are so deep and so deceptive and keep us so stuck.
With all that said, I continue to place my hope in the One who topples the world's systems, who saves and restores all things, Jesus. And I continue to hope in His Church. Because worldviews and systems are difficult to address, I know that I need to first address them in myself.
I just ordered the book Burmese for Beginners. Perhaps this Spring and Summer, as we start digging in Grace Gardens in the Walnut Neighborhood, there will be some opportunities for me to welcome a stranger in such a way that he/she is no longer called a stranger.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
(video has some swearing)
Saturday, February 1, 2014
Ending my blog drought. It looks like the month of January is annually becoming a bit of a retreating month for me.
As I come back online, I'd like to share a video talk given by Father Greg Boyle. Boyle spoke brilliantly at the CCDA conference in New Orleans last September. That particular talk is not on youtube, but I did find a similar message that he gave at a conference on housing.
Our Mission Strategy Team watched and shared our reactions around this talk last month. Boyle's message of mutuality and "kinship" is a must hear.