Two Christmas stories ring out for our attention this Christmas season:
#1: We read that Joseph and his pregnant wife were forced from the security of their home in Nazareth because a selfish leader insisted that people travel to their ancestral home town for a census. Mary’s pregnancy exacerbated this disruption in their lives. And when they arrived after their challenging journey, they were turned away until someone (Who? Why? How?) found a spot fit for animals that they could share.
#2: According to Scripture, after Jesus was born, they had to travel again, this time as refugees fleeing for their lives. They endured the trip to Egypt, possibly not knowing the language, hoping to find fellow Israelites and raise their child in safety even though they were part of an unwanted minority.
Allowing for Bethlehem’s being overcrowded, Egypt’s not wanting foreigners, resources being scarce, and “the other” being judged a threat, one hopes that the travelers found some welcoming strangers along the way.
Since these stories wound up in Scripture (see note at the end), one assumes Mary and Joseph shared them with their son as he grew up. Perhaps they caused Jesus to be more alert to the messages in the Hebrew texts calling for aliens to be welcomed. Perhaps it was these memories that resulted in the famous passage in Matthew:
For I was hungry and you fed me … homeless and you gave me a room ….
This message is not political, nor is it exclusively Christian. Jesus did not belong to a political party nor sign on to “liberal” causes. Forget politics here. Jesus is telling us that caring for refugees is an essential duty, period. This message is in all religions, but practiced by some better than by others. “Nones” also care about other humans. Those who believe that “Nothing is itself without everything else,” as Thomas Berry said, know that we are intrinsically bound to each and every refugee.
First, remember that the numbers consist of real people with real names, loving families, and at least half are children. The total is over 65 million — so difficult to imagine! Comparisons might help: Lebanon has c. 6 million people; NYC has c. 8 1/2 million; the state of California has c. 40 million; Italy has c. 59 million.
What countries accept refugees?
Numbers vary each year, but the top host countries by number of refugees taken are Turkey and Pakistan. The top countries by percentage of their population in 2015 were Lebanon, with c. 210 refugees for every 1000 Lebanese inhabitants and Jordan with 90 refugees for every 1000 Jordanian inhabitants. (The US accepted 0.84 per thousand citizens! Our population is c. 326 million. How many would we take if we were as welcoming as Lebanon?)
Why do people leave their homes?
People flee due to war; famine; religious, sexual, and/or racial persecution; climate-related floods, droughts fires; physical threats from gangs and oppressive governments; stagnant economies. They have no choice but to risk leaving.
What risks must be considered before leaving everything behind?
Before leaving homes, families, work, possessions, language, dreams, religious communities, beloved land — refugees know their travels will be not just difficult but dangerous. Many die. (According to the International Organization for Migration, 22,500 migrants have died or disappeared since 2014.) Women are often raped. People can be sold into slavery and trafficked. Smugglers can take their money and leave them stranded or dead. At best they might face years in refugee camps. Food and shelter can be minimal. Those with “pre-existing conditions” face special hardships and lack of medication. Children lose their childhoods plus adequate nutrition and schooling during their best learning years.
If today you hear a “still, small voice” within, harden not your hearts. Here are some possible actions:
• Ask your members of Congress to accept and support migrant families here in the United States and around the world.
• Support the organizations that help refugees. Three of many:
– UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)
– Catholics Confront Global Poverty (an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services)
– Catholic Refugee Services
• Ask your mayor/ city leader to establish a policy of welcoming those who contribute to the well-being of the city. (For Chicago’s “Welcoming City Ordinance,” see https://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/mayor/press_room/press…)
• Pope Francis asked that every Catholic parish be responsible for one refugee family. I am proud to say that my parish — St. Gertrude, Chicago — adopted two Rohingya families that waited eight years in a camp before being accepted in the US. We are eager to adopt more families, but since refugees are officially not welcome in the U.S., our right to practice our faith is denied!
• In January, be attentive to these opportunities to remember migrants and refugees — as well as those trafficked while attempting to migrate:
January: National Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Month. Also Poverty Awareness.
Jan. 1: World Peace Day. Pope Francis chose “Migrants and Refugees” as the theme.
Jan. 7 – 13: National Migration Week
Jan. 11: National Human Trafficking Awareness Day
Jan. 17: World Day of Migrants and Refugees
The plight of refugees is not limited to one month, but we can make a difference for them by acting during January.
Note: In the interest of updated theology, I add this excerpt from an article by John J. Collins, professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School: “You have a text in the Book of Hosea that says, ‘Out of Egypt, I have called my son.’ In the Book of Hosea, the son is Israel. It means, ‘I brought Israel out of Egypt.’ If you now look at it, and you say, ‘But God’s son is the Messiah, and the Messiah is Jesus,’ well, Jesus must have been in Egypt, and we didn’t know about it. You get the story of the flight into Egypt, which gets into only one out of four gospels.”