Early Monday morning, July 16, 2018 about 7:00 am, I joined about 40 other people who left Charleston bound for Staunton, VA. It was already humid and sticky, and I knew that later on the sun would be hot and maybe unbearable for a time, but I was determined to be a part of this group—WV Interfaith and Refugee Ministry—as we witnessed for peace and justice.
We were headed for the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, a detention center built originally for juvenile offenders, but in recent years half of the center has been used to house male and female refugee and immigrant youth, waiting for court hearings. These youths have been separated from their parents and many of them are showing signs of extreme trauma as they are housed in a facility intended for juvenile criminals. Unlike the American youths in the center, these refugee and immigrant youths have not been convicted of any crime.
Over the last few years, it has been my practice in my writing, to stay on the edge, to not enter deeply into controversial subjects, even as I am aware that what I do every day as Director of Upshur Parish House and Crosslines, Inc. can be controversial to some, who do not believe that those who are without are deserving of extra help. However, in the last year, I find the words pouring through me and some of the articles that I have written have delved into controversial subjects because more and more, I see how Jesus was very clear in what he said about caring for others.
I have reached a point where I am aware that as uncomfortable as some topics are to think about, our country has reached a point where we must consider the ramifications of how we treat people, because how people are treated in our country—native or stranger—involves all of us. We must not turn away and assume that we are not responsible.
So, on Monday morning, I left Charleston, WV, knowing that at some point in this week words would pour through me to describe the experience I was about to have. And words would pour through me to call us all to consider how we treat the stranger, especially the strangers that, by our actions, we cause to become orphans of sorts.
I had been invited by several United Methodist pastors to join them for this event because of my recent renewal leave and the project that I am working on that weaves the stories of my refugee ancestors together with the stories of current refugees who have resettled in Germany. But the group was not made up of entirely United Methodists. There were people who represented many, many different expressions of the Christian faith. There were people of the Jewish faith and even some without any faith. I didn’t realize it at the time we left, but I would have a brief opportunity to talk about my project and to pray over this rally, organized to raise awareness of the treatment of those that the Bible calls the stranger.
As we drove through the mountains of WV and VA, I wondered about what I would experience. It had been a very long time since I found myself at a protest, physically, but more and more in the last several years I have “found” myself at protests all over the world—at least in spirit. Many of those protests have been and are to raise awareness, to call attention to all kinds of unjust conditions–poverty and hunger, homelessness, human rights, affordable housing, available clean water, climate issues, racism, immigration and refugee issues, unemployment, education—I could go on and on. I was ready to be a part of this rally, especially as I remembered the refugees I met in Germany and their concern for the refugees and immigrants in our country. “Tell our story.” they told me. “Use your words to tell others we stand with them.”
We arrived at the center and took our places just off of the center’s property. Right away, I noticed we could not see into the center at all, and we had no idea if anyone inside the facility could see or hear us. It was an act of faith for us to bear witness to justice and peace in that space.
There were several speakers and musicians that brought our group together and inspired us. Attorneys, immigrants, first generation US citizens all offered their voices to raise awareness for the treatment of these young refugee and immigrant children. All of the speakers had a passion for the stranger among us, but the speaker that still has me thinking is Rabbi Victor Urecki, from Charleston, whose family immigrated from Argentina when he was young.
Rabbi Urecki inspired me by reminding me of something that I learned long ago in my first days of seminary– that the Hebrew scriptures include 36 different passages that speak directly about refugees and immigrants. And contained in these 36 different passages are also words that express how God expects us to treat the strangers in our midst, who are as much God’s sons and daughters as anyone and everyone. Rabbi Urecki went on to say that the Hebrew scriptures include the long story of God’s people fleeing—on the move. That statement has stuck with me since that day and sheds much light on the stories of the Old Testament.
The time came for me to speak and to pray. I spoke about what I had learned about myself as a descendant of refugee families and how that has changed my understanding of who I am and how I am called to treat others. I spoke about my friends Abas and Zahra, two refugees that I met in Germany and how they have inspired me with their hope.
As I spoke and as I prepared myself to pray, I felt words rising up to pour through me, reminding me and all those gathered that the stories of immigrants and refugees from long ago are the same stories of the immigrants and refugees now. Names, dates, countries might be different, but the conditions that cause people to make the choice to become a refugee or an immigrant are the same today as long ago when my ancestors made the decision.
As I was praying, I was thinking about how my ancestors left Germany in 1709 because their lives were in danger and how the youth in the facility, whose faces we could not see, also left their countries because their lives and the lives of their families were somehow in danger. I thought about how my ancestors had two children who died on the ocean crossing in 1710, and I thought about how my friend, Abas, who told me that a person on his boat did not survive the crossing from Turkey three years ago. I thought about the woman I met in Bremen, who had received her deportation papers, and how much fear was in her face as tears flowed down her cheeks. I thought about how, in that moment, with her, I suddenly knew the fear my own ancestors might have felt as they were deported from England back to the poverty and hunger that they left in the first place.
And so, my prayer that morning became a prayer of confession, a prayer for wisdom, a prayer for guidance, a prayer for courage, and a prayer for our voices to be used for justice for those youth in that facility and for refugees and immigrants, throughout the world, who need a place to go in order to survive and to thrive.
This week I have been looking at the passages from the Hebrew scriptures that speak about how God expects us to treat the stranger. The words of Jeremiah 22:3 have poured through me and I have thought over and over about the implications of not following these words:
Thus, says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (NRSV)
The words of Romans 12:13 echo Jeremiah’s words: Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (NRSV)
The words are very clear. There are no conditions. It is an expectation of how we are to treat all of God’s children. We must keep looking for ways to embrace God’s children and to care for the stranger. Truly, we must.
Alicia Randolph Rapking is the Director of the Upshur Parish House/Crosslines, Inc. and is an ordained United Methodist pastor serving the West Buckhannon charge. She is a writer, contemplative, artist, and seeker of justice and peace.