Today it is Syrians. In days past, it was Iraqis, Central Americans, and Cubans. I’ve meet some from Burma and Sudan in my hometown. They are refugees, asylum seekers. Even with the sound turned down on my screen, pictures of families making long, harsh journeys across continents is jarring – whatever they are fleeing must be horrible to go through that.
And it is.
By the time we meet them (in the media or in real life) refugees are far from home, disoriented, disheveled, and desperate. But once, they were people with families, jobs, and hope. They don’t come here because they want to leave home – they come because they are fleeing for their lives. This story from Morning Edition on September 21 puts it in perspective – when your persecutors come for your children, staying home is not an option.
As I’ve listened to stories of the newest waves of refugees and asylum seekers, I think not only of their journeys, but of their prospects once they arrive. And thanks to my friend Susan Yarbrough’s wonderful book Bench-Pressed, I have a better understanding – and a softer heart – for persistence and faith it takes to both seek and provide safe haven.
For nearly 18 years, Susan Yarbrough was a United States Immigration Judge and heard thousands of asylum cases each year. The five cases she describes in the book – one for each of the statutory grounds upon which she could grant asylum – are heartrending and as a reader you can begin to understand why she says the work “changed the course of my emotional and spiritual life.” When I met Susan, I was immediately struck by her commitment to radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, which is something she both brought to her service on the bench and also something that developed as she encountered the people who came before her.
The name of the book – Bench-Pressed – has a wonderful double meaning. She describes her years of training with weights and the vulnerability one feels lying on a narrow bench lifting a heavy metal bar straight up above your body. The work of hearing asylum cases is like that, a heavy burden that makes one feel vulnerable under its crushing weight. Yet she recalls that the Yiddish word bentch, which means “blessing,” is also an apt description of that work. Reflecting on her time as an immigration judge she writes, “all the people into whose faces I had looked as they sat on the witness stand near me had indeed blessed me in some way or another.”
And so she tells the stories of Esteban, Josué, Khalid, Elena, and Daniel. Their struggles are particular, yet they have happened and are still happening to thousands of people around the world. People crossing the Rio Grande and the Atlantic Ocean – and streaming into Europe from Syria – today are also fleeing persecution on of account of race, religion, nationality, social group, and political opinion.
Bench-Pressed is moving because of the individual stories, and also because of the compassion we see in the way the cases are handled. I don’t always have a sense that the slow-moving systems that “process” immigrants and refugees have any humanity to them, but these stories and Susan Yarbrough’s witness of her own experience teach me otherwise. Get this book. Read it. And then go out and offer some radical hospitality of your own to the strangers among us.
Once, she sipped from the cup we all shared
Now, we gather round the same table without her
Yet with her, in her memory
Table extended, chairs added
An overflow crowd of lives touched
This banquet is a foretaste
And even in grief, we can taste the sweetness
of the next cup we will share
This weekend, I went to the funeral for a woman I knew at my former parish. There were a mix of people – some I knew, some I did not – all of us connected because of Cynthia and her daughter. I was asked to read one of the lessons and here is what Isaiah told us:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
The first reading at the funeral was about rejoicing at a lavish banquet. It makes you take another look at your surroundings to hear words like that. On the way into the service, I was ready to share grief with everyone else there. The sense of loss was there, but there was also a palpable sense of abundance. It was more than the number of chairs in the room (and we had to keep adding because more and more people came) and more than the cookies eaten at the reception afterwards. The abundance came from all of us together being more than the sum of our parts. That’s what love does.
Ball moss isn’t really moss. It is an air plant that lives off of humidity and dust, water and soil – the same stuff of which I am made. These botanical spheres seem self-sufficient, they don’t really need any other plants for their survival. Yet, they usually live in trees. Maybe they do it for the company. That little ball of thin leaves is really a community of plants holding tightly to each other, and also shooting out long-stemmed flowers to share themselves with the wider world. Island plants that are really not islands at all.
I’ve been using a different lens lately to consider human nature. One view I’m seeing is the nature of our physical selves – humans are both corporal and corporate. We are separate bodies and connected communities – at the same time. You and I can’t be truly human without being both. Our nourishment comes not only from water and soil, but also from holding tightly together and sending our blossoms out to the wider world. It’s how we are made and what we are made for.
My daughter is a feather finder. She loves feathers and finds them wherever she goes. Some are fancy enough to bring home, but most are pretty common and stay where they’ve landed on the grass or in bushes or along sidewalks. Whether she keeps them or not, she looks at them closely, because she loves them. And if you love something, it is worth some examination.
Over the weekend, she held my hand as we walked our dog around the block. It is a walk I’ve taken a thousand times before and I feel like I know it pretty well – the pavement, the neighbors’ houses, the pitch of the hills. On every walk, I compile a to-do list in my head and usually miss the nature and the neighbors. On my own, I know what lies along the route, but I don’t see it.
It is a different walk with my daughter, because she is a feather finder. We can talk about anything in the world, but because she cares about feathers, she will notice them. They are actually right there in plain sight for anyone to see – anyone who seeks them, anyone who cares about them. She finds feathers even when she isn’t looking for them because she is attuned to feathers. They find her.
What am I missing on these walks? While my mind is wandering far away, what is my heart missing? If I hold my daughter’s hand a little more often, will she tether me to the moment and help me see beauty and meaning there?