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Developing Empathy – How Crossing One Border Was Just The Beginning

by Michael Ford


August 10, 2015

Developing Empathy – How Crossing One Border Was Just The Beginning

Rev. Michael Ford

Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!

“I know how you feel” is one of the most dangerous phrases any one person can say to another. In few instances do we ever truly know how another person feels. We may know how we have felt or how we suspect we would feel in a similar situation, but we seldom fully know how another person feels.

I have the privilege of serving as Senior Pastor of Lake Avenue Baptist Church (LABC) in Rochester, New York. In recent years LABC has seen an incredible influx of refugees from Burma. Currently they make up over half of our congregation. They have revitalized our congregation, and we are excited to serve God and the community together. As I have come to know our friends from Burma I have heard incredible stories of joy and pain, challenge and perseverance, as they have made the transitions from home in Burma to refugee camps to a new country in the United States. I know, having heard these stories, that I would never be so clueless as to say “I know what you feel,” because I most certainly do not know how these things feel. I do, however, share one thing in common with our new friends from Burma … I too am new to the United States. I too have come from one place to settle here. I too have crossed a border to my new homeland.

I hail from Canada. I made the move to the United States in 2012. From then to now I have collected a few observations about crossing a border to my new homeland. These observations have helped me develop a shared kinship with our Burmese friends.

First, there is a lot of paperwork. To cross borders it takes a lot of paper. I had the privilege of having my paperwork largely completed by a brilliant law firm. However, I needed to provide a lot of information, which I had readily available and if I did not, I could get it quite quickly (i.e. birth certificates, passports, copies of degrees, statements of residence).

Our Burmese friends have much of their information completed by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees). The difference is that many of our Burmese friends completed their paperwork without information that we take for granted. You don’t have paperwork if you’ve fled your home as your village was burned by approaching armies. You don’t have a birth certificate when your children were born while on the run, fearing for your life and pursuing a peaceful place to reside. Perspective.

Second, the United States is very different. Although we share a border, and are considered two of the most developed countries in the west, Canada and the United States are very different. When I moved to the United States I tried set up my bank account. I learned that the US uses checks. They are seldom used in Canada where all the banking is electronic. I tried to get a credit check to find a place to live and learned that while Canada accepts American credit histories the US does not accept Canadian ones. I was starting all over again in the credit department. Finally I had to learn to differentiate between bills (yes, Canadian money is multiple colors but at least it’s easier not to give the grocery store the wrong amount).

Our Burmese friends have kept money in their homes, if they had money. They have little faith in a system of banks because in their home, if there were places to keep money they were not to be trusted. By keeping money on their persons they would be robbed and all of their financial worth taken. Add to that the language of banking is complicated even for English speakers. When someone is learning English and expected to try to bank in that system it’s a challenge. Perspective.

Finally, healthcare. I come from a country with a “free” healthcare system (it means higher taxes so not technically “free”). I arrived in the United States and had my insurance coverage set up for me. That being said, I had to find a doctor, locate the doctor, learn about co-pays, and try to navigate a system when a medication I had been on in Canada was declined in the US because it was “too costly” for the insurance company.

Our Burmese friends arrive in the United States and are provided with Medicaid. However, they must then find doctors, learn how to locate the doctors and do so using public transportation (many do not have the ability to drive and in some cases have never been in a car until they arrived at the airport in the US). They must then learn how to communicate their concerns in English or through a translator at the doctor’s office. Then they must learn about taking medications and refilling prescriptions. It is quite the system. New and challenging. Perspective.

I have crossed a border to the United States. Our friends from Burma have crossed many borders to get here. I have faced some challenges. The difference is that I am a highly educated, English speaking, Westerner coming from a country that despite it’s differences still is similar enough for me to navigate the system. Our Burmese friends have different challenges. I would never say “I know how you feel” to our Burmese friends. I do not. I may say “I understand that you have faced many many challenges.” I will never say “I know how you feel.”

The point of this all is that borders can be difficult. The United States is often seen as the land of milk and honey by those who have called it home for many years. It may be seen the same way by those who wish to call it home. We need to keep in mind that it is challenging to establish one’s life in a new country, and perhaps even more challenging by those who come from certain places throughout the world. I pray that you will all find ways to equip, encourage, and empower all of those crossing borders. Lake Avenue Baptist Church has become all the richer because of our new friends. Our community, and yours, can and will be made better by your welcome of them too.

Michael serves as the Senior Pastor of Lake Avenue Memorial Baptist Church in Rochester New York. He is privileged to serve with a remarkable staff team who together minister to a diverse, inclusive, wonderful congregation who are proud to be part of the BPFNA family.

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