Column: Prayers for Refugees
By James B. Lemler
Let me tell you the stories of the first two refugee families that I and the parish I served resettled in the early 1980’s. The first was a young family of a mom, dad, and child who came from Poland. The dad was very active in the Polish Solidarity union and movement and had his life threatened with some regularity.
The second also included three people, actually three brothers, who had made it out of South Africa in the nick of time; they too were receiving threats on their life from the Apartheid regime that controlled this beautiful country at that time. Both families had fled for their lives. Both had spent a great length of time being vetted by the U.S. State Department, wondering and waiting. But there was one thing that was not similar. The Polish family had fled from oppressive Communism, the South African family from oppressive racism, one from the left, the other from the right.
Those resettlements led to several more through the years, to my participation as a founder of a metropolitan refugee resettlement organization, and to my chairing of an Episcopal diocesan refugee resettlement commission. Yes, I was committed, and it didn’t end there. Later I served in a supervisory role for the mission divisions of the Episcopal Church, including the award-winning Episcopal Migrations Ministries. Looking back, I realize that I spent a good three decades working in areas of immigration and refugee resettlement. And my commitment to this ministry and work has never subsided. (The Greenwich congregation I now serve has a long history of resettlement as well.)
I have learned some things over these years. First, that the welcoming of the stranger is a core value of Hebrew and Christian Scripture and of the tradition of faith of Judaism and Christianity alike. Second, that the mission of hospitality and welcome is a sign of healthy religious and national communities. Third, that all of the refugees I encountered over years had been vetted in an almost unbelievably thorough way. And finally, that this ministry and call transcend politics (to wit: I am not writing this to take a particular political position, although I have my perspective, as every reader does.)
So why am writing this article, you might be asking? I want to share my experience and the great joy that welcoming refugees, immigrants, and other strangers has had for me. Yes, it has been a civic experience, but that is quite secondary to the spiritual experience it has been for me and for the churches I have served. This activity is a manifestation and incarnation of the primary work of faith and spirit, which is to welcome and embrace those in greatest vulnerability and need. As the writer of the New Testament Letter to Ephesians described the purpose of Jesus as “breaking down the walls of hostility and enmity that divide us,” so that is our purpose too.
My own prayer and reflection hold our nation and religious communities up before God; I remember those who are fleeing for their lives and have become refugees and acknowledge my own personal “refugee status” as someone who yearns for God, as a person who wanders in my own journey of life seeking God and God’s protection and love. I often pray the 84th Psalm, the Psalm, by the way, appointed in the Christian Church on the Sunday that commemorates the travel of the infant Jesus of Nazareth with his parents, Mary and Joseph, as refugees from certain death in their homeland to safety in Egypt. The words have dual meeting for me…
“How beautiful are your dwellings O Lord of hosts. My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. Even the sparrow has found a house and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, a place near your altar…. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts move forth in a sojourner’s way… Blessed is the one who trusts you.”
I pray these words for those seeking refuge for fear of their lives, for our church and nation, for my own journey forward in hope. I pray them as I remember the immigrants and refugees I have known and loved in my journey. I pray them for myself, or anyone who looks for safety, security, and hope in the Creator of us all. Try them out yourself.
The Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler is the rector of Christ Church in Greenwich.