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March 17, 2017
A year ago, our church received a refugee family from Homs, Syria. We‘ve housed and supported them, and for a year, been their American family. They are Sunni Muslim, we, Presbyterian Christian.
After a bomb explosion destroyed their home and wounded their Dad, their city already in ruins, they walked through war to Jordan and joined the refugee masses. Applying for US refugee status, they underwent an intensive three year investigation, a “vetting.” And then, as by miracle, they came to us. Our year as family has been redemptive for us, transformative. Among other things, as gift from these Muslims, we’ve discovered authentic Christian church.
Four of them are young children, the youngest a toddler born in the refugee camp, heartbreakingly beautiful. They are the gentlest, loveliest of people. As the biblical book of Acts exclaims of first century Christians, “how they love each other.” They are our models of industry, resilience, generosity and courage.
For a year now they’ve heard strident political speeches and slanderous mob slogans, claiming that improperly vetted people like themselves, in numbers greatly exceeding the official count, are flooding our country with intent to do us grave harm. This bitter outcry comes from people who’ve never met Syrians and other nationals, or visited churches and other communities who welcome them. The noise of their clamor smacks of something demonic in the country’s soul. It is as far different from these Syrians we love as is the new president from Abraham Lincoln.
After the election, we applied for another Syrian family hoping they would arrive before the new president could shut down America as the world’s best hope. We were joined by an Adventist and a Universalist church, and two synagogues. Our new family had made their heroic escape and been vetted. But the dreaded executive order came down like the guillotine blade only hours before their departure. “Effective Immediately.”
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” the Lady proclaims from New York harbor. Since 1903, she’s proclaimed it, echoing a cry already three centuries old. And now we, from the depths of our faith and the heights of our recent experience, also say it. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,” we say with our Adventist, Universalist and our Jewish partners. And they heard us. Their bags were packed. Their tickets, their new long –sought papers clutched in their hands. But the door, forever open, slammed.
Can you imagine?
Outraged at this wounding of the nation’s best angels, near paralyzed with grief, we embarked on a project of insane hope. These Syrians were destined by God and the most sacred of American traditions, to come to us, be family with us, their documents in their hands. For days we prepared the apartment we had for them. We had already sent two busses and a slew of pink hats to the Women’s March in DC. We went to protests, Battery Park, Kennedy Airport, our Senators’ offices. We fired off hundreds of petitions, letters, phone calls to Congress. We declared our church a Sanctuary Church and a Resistance Bureau. We prayed in morning worship and evening candlelight vigil. We pledged that if our current family is required to register as Muslims, we’ll register with them, Presbyterian Christian Muslims, like the goyim of Amsterdam wearing Yellow stars in the Holocaust.
And then it came: the miracle. Judge Robart, in Seattle, stayed the president’s order. The “so-called judge,” tweeted the so-called president, tweeter-in-chief, trashing the separation of powers. The appeals court upheld his decision. Our new family was cleared to come. Through a journalist, filming our struggle, whose colleague in Istanbul found them, we got their cell phone number. We shouted our hope across an ocean, warned them of the minefields still out there, received their concoction of thrill and dread. In insane hope, we waited.
Last year, when we picked up our family at Newark Airport, we took only five people with five cars. We thought it best not to overwhelm them with exuberant Americans. But we all went this time—except our other family who was at the apartment cooking a Syrian dinner. We’d warned them on the phone of the exuberant Americans.
They came. They really came, dragging their remaining possessions, out of the JFK refugee holding pen, to be overwhelmed and exuded over. They’ll get over it. We probably won’t.
In these darkest of times, it was a miracle.
George Williamson is the founding president of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.