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?
Welcome, Bitty Bitty and Bonga! We hope you will enjoy your lively, pink surroundings. Perhaps through your curved glass windows, you will catch glimpses of all the people (and one dog) who promise to love and feed you, clean your home (never, ever forgetting the water conditioner), and provide you will an rotating collection of faux-sea furnishings and rainbow loom bracelets, even though you don’t have hands or arms. If you are lucky, we hope you will also glimpse colors other than pink. Many blessings on your new home – the bowl, the house, and the family.
I have several new friends who just moved to Texas from other states. They asked and have been told about where to get the best BBQ, and they’ve learned about the odd quirks of our streets-that-change-names-every-couple-of-miles. The longer they live here, the greater the odds that they will learn how to two-step, where to catch great live music, and that tacos for breakfast, too.
There is one thing, however, that I have been urging them to experience while they are here and they just don’t seem to understand it’s cultural importance. I am speaking about going to Buc’ee’s. If you have to ask why, it means you have not been yet. You really should go.
Buc’ee’s is a roadside refuge, but not just a place to fill your tank and stretch your legs. Whenever you drive between Texas towns, it is important to make sure your route will pass a Buc’ee’s or the trip will be incomplete.
Now, I need to make it clear to the newcomers (the natives will know this already) which Buc’ee’s I am talking about. You might drive down the highway and see a regular looking gas station/convenience store with a sign that says, “Buc’ee’s.” But that is NOT WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT. Why would I send you to regular? I am sending you someplace extraordinary. You will know you are headed to the right place when you see huge billboards announcing, “Clean Restrooms Ahead. We Guaranpee It! 21 Miles” (And that is true. You should have a serious talk with your bladder about timing your stop to meet this need – it is worth it.) I was headed toward the town of Waller and passed a sign that said, “Waller You Waiting For? 8 Miles.” Buc’ees loves a good pun.
And then, there it was:
That is just the side entrance.
You can tell you are at the right place because IT IS AS BIG AS A HOME DEPOT. Maybe even a Walmart. It is immediately evident that this will be more than a pit stop, it will be a life changing road trip experience.
Before you actually enter, you may think to yourself, “I wonder what kind of snack I can buy myself at Buc’ee’s?” Because that is what most people do when they go to a convenience store along the highway. In fact, Buc’ee’s has its own brand of snacks, the most famous if which are the Beaver Nuggets:
But there is so much more.
So. Much. More.
So far, you might think Buc’ee’s isn’t that much better than any other stop along the road. And you really need to be getting on your way…except, haven’t you been thinking about redecorating your house? And wouldn’t it be convenient if you could do that now, while you are driving away from your house? At a place that also sells snacks and birdhouses? What if you could get a beaded cow skull, faux-leather pillows, and charming wooden signs for the walls in your new Texas home? What if you could get placemat, napkins and a table runner featuring the Texas bluebonnet? Or a faux leather shower curtain and matching towels? WHAT IF YOU COULD GET THIS ALL IN ONE PLACE?
Friends, you can:
Perhaps you need to take it up a notch. All those decorative items are just a little too tame for you?
Okay. Why don’t you treat yourself to a cowhide? Because they sell those at Buc’ee’s.
At the highway gas station/convenience store. (You can also get a mirror with a cowhide frame.)
And that isn’t even all -I could go on all day. Camo-themed items of all sorts. Everything imaginable in the shape of Texas – wooden things, stone things, soap things, lots and lots of Texas-shaped things. There is framed “art” on the walls leading to the famous bathrooms. And, of course, you can get your own Buc’ee to take home.
Maryology loves Marys. You knew that; it’s what we are all about here. And on a recent trip out to the Texas Hill Country, I got to see a shrine to Mary of Nazareth, the BVM, mother of Jesus. A friend pointed me in the right direction and as I strolled over I saw it nestled into a hill looking like a small house of stone – perhaps even a little like the house in Ephesus where legend says she lived her last years:
As I got closer, I could see a sweet copper statue of Mary holding an infant Jesus:
Someone left Mary and Jesus a puppy. Thoughts?
Here are the ingredients for a great retreat:
First, the drive. It was supposed to be just over an hour away through the Texas Hill Country just outside of Austin. On a gorgeous sunny day I was listening to James Taylor’s new CD and driving down a stretch of highway toward a couple days of relaxing with new friends. But because Google didn’t really know what the heck it was talking about and a bridge was washed out on one really important turn, I got lost and it took 2.5 hours. Still – a gorgeous day!
(If you are going to get lost in the Hill Country, I suggest you have a friend like my buddy John who tracked me down, got lost (again) with me and then found our destination with time to spare before dinner was served.)
Next, setting. We stayed in a lodge at the Wellspring Retreat Center which has retreat-worthy sofas, rocking chairs, porches, and views. It was impossible to look the wrong way – every direction gave up vistas of rolling hills and climbable live oaks. At night, the sky was filled with stars and it was dark enough to see them surrounding the crescent moon. Probably best, at least for this sun-weary Texan, was a full day of cloudy weather. A rare treat.
But really, the heart of any retreat is the people. All of us are just meeting each other, just starting out on our theological educational journey in a new environment. Even those of us (like me) who already live in Austin are making huge adjustments and jumping into the unknown. So it was important and also comforting to get to know everyone in a setting other than campus – with its proximity to classrooms, library, and work-study assignments. The slow rhythm of group meetings, relaxed worship, and down time made it possible for us to know a whole lot more about our fellow travelers and the amazing life experiences each brings with them. That, a multi-day game of Risk, and nightly parties in the parking lot.
I’m still not sure any of us is ready for classes to start on Monday, but they will whether we are ready or not. And in addition to all the information we received during orientation, we now have each other. Game on!
All this week I am in orientation for seminary, but as our Academic Dean observed today, it feels more like disorientation. Life is being turned upside-down as I go from my old life-rhythm to a new one. I am taking in so much new information it is overwhelming – I know I won’t remember it all. There is excitement and grief in all these changes. I love being a student and being on this beautiful campus, but am getting teary thinking about the time I will lose with my kids when I am all the way across town as they get off the school bus in the afternoons. By the end of September, we will all have a new normal, but for now things still feel out of balance. Unsettled.
I was thinking about all of this today in the first of three chapel services. (That right there is a big change.) The chapel is an architectural metaphor for our life here at seminary. There is a firm floor and a strong stone wall on one side. But the cross, instead of hanging on a wall behind the altar, is on the other side of a large window, not inside the chapel but pulling our eyes to the world outside it. It is a visual reminder that all of us here are preparing to leaving this place from the moment we enter, we are being called into other roles, other lives.
As you sit in the chapel, you can’t help but notice that across from the stone wall is a wall of windows. So, in this quiet space while you sing or pray or check your phone for email, you can’t help but notice squirrels playing in the trees or butterflies checking out the flowers in the garden or other people walking by. The busy world is out there with the cross, calling for your attention.
At times it seems like all the activity on the other side of the window is a distraction. But at other times, it feels like a reminder, “Oh yeah, that is why I am here.” None of us is here to remain in a permanent blissful, contemplative state, we are here to get information and hone skills that we will practice out there on the other side of the window.
So, in fact, my new friends and I are being oriented to a new environment and disoriented because everything is new and unsettling. But we are also being reoriented, turned to face a new direction, learning to pay attention to the same old things in a new way and from a new perspective.
Of course, it occurred to me as the day was ending that when I leave this place next spring, I’ll have to do this dis- re- orienting all over again.