The Fear of the Refugee
Brookfield Unitarian Universalist Church
April 10, 2022
Our theme this month is Fear. I joked when I discovered that I’d be speaking to you this month given our theme – this being my first sermon, it seemed fitting because this podium is a scary place to be. I’ve given sermons in the Summer, but austerity of this moment made me feel very inadequate and unsure whether I have something to say that’s worthwhile let alone inspiring. But recent experiences and awareness of how our global community is hurting calls on me to, as Reverend Craig puts it, “bear witness” and to speak with you about a fear many of us will never experience – the fear of the refugee.
Now, we’ve all felt the fear of matters of our life being out of our control. The fear of the new, the unencountered is very familiar to all of us. These times are scary because we are happy in our familiarity. We are content in our known surroundings. But moments occur when we must be forced to give up our old routines and chart some new course in our lives. Perhaps, you have been startled by an unexpected health diagnosis. Or maybe you start a new job and experience some dread at how your routines will change and you worry about how you’ll form new relationships with new co-workers. Or maybe you are re-locating to a new area of the country and you don’t really know what’s around that corner or over that new horizon.
The strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown. It grips our imagination and can worry us to the point of losing sleep and can even paralyze us from moving forward. But imagine if everything – everything - that was familiar changed. Magnify the small fears we have when facing some new thing and dwell a moment on the experience of many of our brothers and sisters who must leave all they’ve ever known because it is no longer safe to stay.
Imagine leaving everything you identified with, your family, your friends. Your culture. Your language. Everything familiar. Imagine the worry and dread you would feel being forced at gun point to abandon your home. Or because of the threat of reprisal from violent gangs, you must find a safer place for your children. Imagine traveling a long desperate journey, filled with peril and danger and violence, where even your next meal or drink of water is not guaranteed. Moving over a terrain you don’t know, not knowing who you can trust, facing difficulty and dehydration and the possibility of death.
After you make the journey, an outcome that is by no means guaranteed, you continue to face risk in your new home. You fear every dark corner, every change in your path. And the hosts in your new country if they can be called that, prefer to treat you with distance and distain rather than welcome – making it very clear you are an outsider. The government of this new country operates in strange ways and in a language you don’t understand. Just getting the bare essentials is a struggle.
We who dwell in the safety of our society can look at all of this and have one of two reactions. First, we can push it away in our minds. We can treat the “absolute otherliness” of our neighbors that our reading described, as a completely insurmountable problem – for another generation or our governments to solve. The other reaction we can have is to look at the plight of refugee and try to become a sanctuary for those in danger and a servant to all in need as the Shantideva prayer goes. But here at BUUC, we’re all in the second group, right? I mean we’re all UUers so we want to do something, right? Our guiding principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person should move us to want to help.
But, this problem is so immense, how can we deal with it? It’s so far away, how can we help? I’m just a common man or woman in New England, what can I do? Well, there are so many small things you can do to make a difference. Let me tell you the story of one small thing I did recently and the lessons I learned.
One clear brisk Sunday morning in January, Lila made an announcement asking for volunteers to give a Spanish-speaking family who’d recently settled in Vermont, a ride to Providence RI to the Guatemalan consulate there. I went up to Lila after service and said I was interested in volunteering. She had also heard from another person in the congregation. She let me know she would be letting her contact know that I was interested and told me I’d be hearing from her soon.
To be honest, I didn’t think I was qualified. I don’t speak any Spanish and knew that with everyone wearing masks, communication would be a big barrier. And we had to be able to communicate. But I figured I would volunteer anyway. I wanted to do my part – albeit small. It wasn’t a huge sacrifice for me. I knew I could get the time off from work and I had the means so, why not help someone out.
And to be completely also be honest, I was getting a really good feeling from volunteering. You know that charge you get when you feel you’re being your better self being motivated by the needs of another? It was that kind of thing. I’d been moved by so many things that were still in the news about the refugees from Afghanistan – it just really felt good to be able to bless some folks that were less fortunate than me.
But the universe has a way of turning your motivations around and in the end I found I was much more blessed than I was a blessing to anyone. That “splinter of light” from our reading was to warm my heart and expand my understanding of the hospitality I thought I was showing. This “less fortunate” family was to show me the true meaning of kindness and humble me by their examples of gratitude and generosity.
By email I was introduced to the host for the family I was to take to Providence. I would pick up the family of three: mother, we’ll call her, Anna, father, Albert and their son Albert Jr, 8 years old at her home in Brimfield. I let the host know that I didn’t speak Spanish and she assured me the little boy was up to the task. I was pretty amused by this idea but also understanding the seriousness of the journey, I wondered if I should have a backup in case we got into a situation that needed it. She said she’d be available if that was necessary but re-assured me Albert would be perfect.
I picked them up early in the morning and we proceeded to head to Providence. I learned they lived in Vermont and worked on a farm there along with a large crew of other Guatemalan and Mexican refugees. They had traveled down from Vermont the night before and had stayed overnight with Camille and her family.
That was my first shock. I was giving them a ride down to Rhode Island not because they lacked the ability to get there themselves. They’d made more than half the journey already. But as undocumented refugees, the further they traveled from Vermont the more risk they were taking being stopped by police in another state. That might raise red flags and could mean a lot of trouble for them, their employer and their fellow coworkers.
“Man,” I thought, “the things we take for granted in our country.” We think nothing of crossing state boundaries. Massachusetts roads and Rhode Island roads are all the same to us. We can travel from state to state and not worry about reprisals driving a car with out-of-state plates. It doesn’t even cross our minds.
As we continued our journey, most of the conversation was between me and Albert Jr. And I’ll tell you, that boy could talk. He talked about school, which he loved by the way, especially science and math. This kid was a bright wonderful child full of life, and happy to translate for his Mom or Dad back and forth. He talked about sports – soccer, of course, and his home, Guatemala.
Through him I learned that this family had left more than just their country and culture. They’d left family behind. His older brothers and sister were still in Guatemala. There were unable to make the journey. He talked about how the family sent money back home to them every chance they got. I was very moved. Here was this boy of 8 who had experienced so much that I will never know – but through all of that – the most heartbreaking thing for him was that his family was split up. Brothers and sisters not growing up with their little brother – I thought about how painful a goodbye that must have been.
As we journeyed on, Albert kept translating and I learned more about this family. I learned that the other workers on the farm shared some in raising Albert. He told me about times when his mother had to work, and she would leave him in their care. He told me how they protected him and how they had become a sort of extended family to him. I got the picture that they shared much in common with one another.
We got to the consulate or what I thought was the approximate location of the consulate. By the GPS I knew we had to be close so I parked the car and got out and looked around for something that would tell me we were there. What I was looking at was not a grand government complex. In fact, it was more like an industrial or office park than anything else. We went into one squatty building after another and tried to find a sign that would point us to where they needed to be. As we came to the other side of a hallway and doors leading outside, Albert spotted the signal we were looking for. There just across another parking lot, waved the Guatemalan flag. He beamed as he found it and announced loudly and triumphantly, “There it is!”
The Guatemalan flag is beautiful. It features two bands of “Maya blue” on either side of a white band that pictures a parchment scroll celebrating Central Americas independence from Spain. Also gracing the middle band is a resplendent quetzal – the national bird of Guatemala, symbolizing liberty. It is a proud and peaceful flag. It’s no wonder it was so recognizable to the family. It was a lovely moment. We’d found the place!
We walked over to the building across the parking lot. This building looked more like a small school It certainly did not conjure images of a consulate like I had in my mind. The family proceeded to speak to the woman who came outside the building to interview them. Anna had brought all their papers and took over representing her family to the workers there. Seeing everything was in order, they were invited into the building and I let her know through Albert that I would wait for them in the parking lot. She smiled and went inside.
I moved the car closer to where I could see the consulate building and waited for them to come back. I had a clear view of the door. I watched so many others come and go – many more than the two workers who came outside to screen people could sometimes handle. In the space of 2 hours I lost count at seventy. Seventy lives. Seventy stories. More than seventy dear neighbors with their own “Alberts” and representing their own families. All ages from college age to the very old. Several were turned away perhaps because paperwork wasn’t quite in order or the system couldn’t handle seeing them that day. Very few went inside like Anna’s family.
After several hours, they came back out and I witnessed another example of how broken our immigration system is. This would not be the only time they would need to come to the consulate. Albert explained that this was only the first of many steps and that they would have to come back in 3 or 4 months for the next phase of the process. But the family was greatly buoyed knowing this part at least was behind them.
We decided to get some lunch and the consensus was to get Chinese food. We found a nice Chinese restaurant in Providence. Here I was again to experience the generosity of these people. Albert Sr made it very clear I would not be paying for lunch or even my own meal. Even with the language barrier and the mask covering his face I could understand his insistence on this point. It was a very nice meal. The Asian woman serving us spoke Spanish. Talk about white privilege. Here I was only knowing English while the restaurant owner spoke her native tongue and English and Spanish. I felt like a very dumb American!
Once again, I was humbled by the hospitality of this family. But it was not to be the last time. For as we left Providence, I got a little lost when my phone lost cell service. While I was trying to get my bearings, Albert excitedly called from the back seat, “Mama! Mama! Pollo Campero!”. Also gleeful at the sight, his mother said something to him indicating her approval. He pointed at the building on the right of us and asked me to stop. I was still trying to figure out how I was going to get us home and I was not familiar with this area of Providence. From the front, Albert Sr directed me where to turn and soon we were in the parking lot of the Pollo Campero in Providence, RI.
To tell you the truth, I was a little annoyed. My job was to get them back to Brimfield, after all and we had just had lunch. So what could we possibly need here? But something told me to relax my feelings about the itinerary and make this stop. I am so glad I did. They went into the restaurant and I stayed behind seeing if I could pick up cell service again.
I learned later that Pollo Campero was started in 1971 IN GUATEMALA! There is one in Boston and one in Providence. And here we were, being lost in Providence and just happenstance bringing us to this place. Happenstance – right!
Google translates it to “Rural Chicken” which doesn’t do the place any justice at all. The brightly colored building and the spicy and aromatic chicken were tastes and treats of home.
I went from annoyed to amused but that was not the end of the lesson. Albert Sr and Jr both came out laden with several bags of chicken – several bags. I watched them as they loaded it into the back of the car and immediate the car filled with the sweet spicy scents of that considerable haul. But I didn’t understand why they’d purchased so much. To my shame I still didn’t get it.
Albert Jr said “We got 40 pieces! We’re going to have such a party!” It was then that it dawned on me. And I get choked up thinking about it now. Those co-workers of Albert’s dad would be feasting on chicken tonight. And not just chicken – Pollo Campero chicken – chicken from home. It moved me deeply to realize this family would be sharing their bounty so much more generously than I had shared anything in my life. This family, concerned with their own plight, often fearful, facing prejudice and a system that is inefficient and tedious, saw through all of that – seeing themselves in this place, then, able to be a blessing to others.
But you see that’s what it is folks. Look, the plight of the refugee is huge. Their fears are intense and real and probably not something most of us will ever experience firsthand. But that fact should not make us shrink back from doing something to alleviate that pain. Trying makes a difference. And there are so many ways you can help. Ascentria Care Alliance, an organization based in our area has spoken in our church. Signup in their network of volunteer teams helping Afghan, Ukranian and Hispanic refugees. Or you can donate to programs like No Mas Muertes. This organization helps people making the arduous dangerous journey to sanctuary in the US. Among other things, they provide life-saving potable water and other aid to those on the migration trails in Central America. Or, maybe like Lila, make an announcement. Seek a way to help and make a difference.
Trying makes a difference. Your trying will make a difference. It has to. May it be so.