I support refugees because…

I support refugees because…

December 4, 2018
By: 
The Rev. Canon Heather L. Melton, Staff Officer for the United Thank Offering

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

— Matthew 1:13-16

I support refugees united thank offering episcopal churchIt must be a terrifying experience – gathering up your family to flee a place that is your home, that houses all of your belongings, to set out for a land that is not your own and where they speak a different language, bringing only what you can carry. You leave with the hope that this new place will welcome you and allow you to practice your trade and raise your family in peace. You do this because the threat if you stay at home is greater than the risk and challenges you will face in the new land. This is the story of Mary and Joseph, but it’s also the story of my family and the estimated 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in our world today.

I am half German and half Irish. When I was pregnant, I started working on the girls’ baby books, in which there’s a place for a genealogy chart. I could easily fill out the side of my family from Ireland. They came as economic migrants, leaving behind the potato famine and desperate times in the hopes of finding work and a new life. History shows us that the Irish faced harsh treatment upon arrival in the United States. I once worked at a church where the title on the rectory said that it could not be inhabited by “Jews, Blacks, or Irish,” showing that the discrimination against the Irish lasted much longer than I realized. A few years later, as the girls were playing at my feet at another church in New York, a parishioner asked me if the girls were “Irish twins” and I asked her what she meant. She laughed and explained by saying, “You know how it is with the Irish – they have so many children, one right after the other, so we call them Irish twins when you have a baby and then have another one right away.” I bristled because this term, Irish twins, is offensive. It’s offensive because it was used to refer to large Irish families that depended on welfare or the dole for support, or it was a slight against their Catholicism. I remember smiling and saying, “Well, they’re Irish and they are twins” before walking away. My German side proved more challenging. Thankfully, I have a friend who is an amazing genealogist and helped point me in the right direction. I was able to discover that my family came to the United States from Germany to escape the pogroms. My great-grandmother was placed at a Catholic orphanage when she was 5 years old, and her parents died shortly thereafter. This all happened before the term “refugee” was made official in 1951, but clearly that is what they were. As I read the records, I thought of Mary and Joseph. I thought about how frightening it must be to flee your home and to feel like you have no other choice but to run.

At General Convention, Episcopal Migration Ministries asked us to share why we support refugees by writing it on a big button. My daughters love Convention, mostly for all of the buttons. They still proudly wear their EMM button on their backpacks. I remember filling my button out with “I support refugees because I am descended from refugees.” In reality I cannot separate my faith, my history, or my prosperity from the hope in the heart of the immigrants and refugees that all landed in Ohio at various times in search of something better. I am eternally grateful for their grit, their determination, and their willingness to risk everything. I’m descended from refugees and immigrants, and I follow a faith focused on a man who also was a refugee and told us that our job was to love, especially the least, the lost, and the forgotten. I have an EMM shirt, and I love wearing it. I was at a coffee shop one day and a man stopped me. He said that he and his wife were talking about how brave I was to wear this shirt. I smiled and said that I wasn’t sure it’s brave, but it’s definitely honest. Turns out he and his wife are new Episcopalians, and he was excited that EMM is a part of our Church. He even gave me a donation for EMM.

I don’t have all of the answers to the problems of our day, but I do know, and as our Presiding Bishop has said, “It is because we are followers of Jesus, because we follow the way of love, because we follow the way of compassion, because we follow the way of human decency and kindness that we must be passionately committed to helping refugees and displaced persons of this day.” And while that is all true, for me, it’s also deeply personal.

All of this is to say that I support refugees because my faith demands it. I support refugees because my family was welcomed and made a life here, and put their hope in each generation that followed them. And I support refugees because I am so very grateful for those that welcomed my family members who were fleeing persecution and famine so that I could be here today trying to teach people about gratitude. And, dear ones, if I am being very honest and very vulnerable, I support refugees because I am terrified of being one, terrified that we would not be welcomed, and terrified that my children might see or experience the violence and hatred that other children their same age do, compelling their families to flee home.

As 2018 comes to an end and we’ve finished our November gratitude challenge, Advent begins to unfold around us. This year, UTO has decided not to create an Advent program for you, but rather to share our space with Episcopal Migration Ministries so you can experience its programs and hear the stories. We’re doing this because UTO has a long commitment to supporting refugees, and refugees and EMM need our support now more than ever. Since 1980, UTO has funded 39 grants to support refugee ministries and 19 additional grants specifically to Episcopal Migration Ministries and its affiliates, which means that many of you reading this are likely in a diocese with some form of ministry supporting refugees. It is important to hear about the work EMM does on behalf of all of us during Advent because it’s the time of year we await the birth of a baby who will become a refugee to escape genocide and go on to change the world.

So this Advent, as you prepare for Christmas, we invite you to join us as we support refugees. Please share with us on our social media platforms why you support refugees. Join with us as we participate in the webinars about refugees, listen to the EMM podcast, and support EMM through prayer or donations. Help us to share the story of Jesus, a refugee, as we talk about the refugees among us now. Or simply give thanks for the immigrants and refugees in your life or for those who work to support refugees. Or give thanks for the safety of your home this Christmastime, as you pray for those whose homes are no longer safe.