Remembering displacement

by Susan Rose Francois

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"You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). This passage from Exodus is one of the many commands in Scripture to welcome the stranger — many, many commands.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that when they welcome the stranger, they welcome Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46).

"Not only that. ... It's one of the tests for entrance into heaven," Jesuit Fr. James Martin tweeted this week. "God will judge you on your response. Read it again."

When I looked up this passage from Matthew on the USCCB website to find the proper citation, I was startled to read the heading given to this particular section: "The Judgment of the Nations." Indeed. This is serious, folks, and God is watching.

On television this week, I watched the footage of startled and scared travelers from the seven countries banned by President Donald Trump's executive order, finally free after hours of being detained, questioned and, in some case,s even handcuffed by immigration officials, pushing their luggage carts past large crowds of people in baggage claim. You can see the tension in the faces of these families and individuals lessen as they realize that these crowds are not there to intimidate them further, but rather to welcome them with signs, banners and cheers. It brought joy to my heart as I watched smiles slowly break out on the faces of these weary travelers.

These travelers presumably had already been vetted and approved for entry into our country by the government. They hold green cards or visas or, in some cases, citizenship. No doubt they wondered over the hours when they were detained in the airport if they would ever make it home to their jobs, their internships, their studies, or their families in the United States.

Millions of other weary travelers continue to languish in refugee camps. They have spent years displaced from their homes, forced to flee for safety from war, violence and oppression. Many of them have been extremely vetted. They have filled out paperwork, answered questions, and pleaded for the safe haven promised them by the Geneva Convention. Some of them have finally made it through the bureaucratic hurdles and are ready to take the next step of their journey to a strange new land.

Yet as it stands, the executive order continues to ban refugees — some, like those from Syria, indefinitely. It does not matter that they have been previously vetted and approved. It does not matter that there are people of faith and goodwill ready to welcome the stranger. Our government will not allow them to find safe haven on our shores.

There is a reason why God commands, repeatedly, that we are to welcome the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Our faith story is one of displacement. Our faith ancestors were forced out of their homeland. They wandered for years in the desert. They languished in camps. They sought assistance and were sometimes oppressed and exploited instead. God reminds us, firmly but gently and persistently, that we that we know what that feels like. Remember when you were displaced. Welcome the stranger.

I've always had an intellectual understanding of this commandment. It made sense, and certainly the consistent repetition of the commandment in Scripture meant we should pay attention to it. Thirteen years ago, my own parish came together to welcome a refugee family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was a transformative experience for our parish community. Nevertheless, the privilege of my own life meant that I did not really know what it felt like to be forcibly displaced. I've always had a home and a support system to provide for my every need.

Until, that is, I woke up to the sound of a fire alarm four months ago. The sight of rather large flames outside our windows confirmed that this was not a drill. The 30-plus sisters who lived at St. Michael Villa, our regional center in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, made our way outside to safety, many of us (myself included) still in our pajamas. We found refuge in the gym in another building on the campus. We huddled together, unsure how serious the fire was, grateful that no one was hurt.

Soon, it became clear that we would not be able to go home anytime soon. The sisters who lived in our infirmary and assisted-living building found temporary shelter in a nursing home and residential hospice that our community sponsors. They stayed there for several weeks until the smoke damage could be repaired and the infirmary building adapted to accommodate the sisters because those who lived in the main building, which received major damage, would not be able to return home.

Other sisters who lived more independently found shelter first in a hotel and then with other communities of our sisters in the area. We lived out of suitcases. We ventured into the smoke-damaged building with masks and gloves to retrieve belongings covered in soot. We coordinated the recovery process and arranged for our home on the campus to be cleaned and smoke- damaged belongings and furniture replaced. Four months later, I am finally back in my own room in my local community, although the main building next door still has major damage that will take years to repair.

"You know well what it feels like." I feel like I now have a small, tiny sense of what it feels like to be forcibly displaced. My community and support system meant I never missed a meal. I always had somewhere to sleep. I had the resources to go to the store on the day of the fire in my pajamas and buy some new clothes. Our nearby sisters found spaces in their homes to welcome us as our exodus extended from days to weeks to months. I was always supported.

And yet, I was also constantly discombobulated. I found it hard to pray, be grounded or centered. I forgot things and left a trail of belongings behind me: a scarf here, a hat there, a book somewhere. My brain was scattered and my heart heavy.

My experience of displacement was short, yet it has deepened my own understanding of the stresses that displaced people the world over experience. I am newly motivated to advocate on behalf of those forcibly displaced by war, poverty and natural disasters, especially those who are without the resources and support of community that surrounds me.

"So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19).

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]