Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Welcome the Stranger (March 18, 2018)

Ever since I went to that Red Cross disaster training right after Hurricane Katrina, I meant to put together a disaster preparedness kit for our family. But I procrastinated for more than a decade. It was finally watching the videos of folks fleeing their flooded homes in Texas this past summer that firmed my resolve. I finally got a couple of used backpacks and filled them up with rain ponchos, water, trail mix, blankets and a change of socks. Then I added water purification tablets after I heard the stories of folks in Puerto Rico. Now when I see a car stuck in the side of the road in a snowstorm I think “I should add hand warmers.” When I see coverage of folks evacuated into a red cross shelter, I think “I’ll need a deck of cards and a favorite book.”

My family thinks I’m a bit strange to spend so much thought on a bag that we’re hoping never to use. But I know that when the whole rest of the family is standing there with their coats and shoes on, I’m the one who is looking for my cell phone and saying “I feel like I’m forgetting something.” And since scientists tell us that that when we are in a crisis rational, systematic thought shuts down[i] I thought it might be a useful exercise. As I told my family, hopefully this will just be a quirky thing about mom that you joke about when we’re old, but there’s another layer of value to the practice I think- the realization that floods aren’t something that happen to those people far away, that when there’s a flood in Texas, that has something to do with me.

This month, Jewish people all over the world are going to celebrate Passover, a ritual remembrance of a time thousands of years ago when Jewish people left their captivity in Egypt, fleeing into the wilderness even though they could take no more than they could carry, even though they had no other place to call home. A whole generation of people lived as refugees; for 40 years they wandered in the desert. And now during Passover, thousands of years later, Jewish people remember the time when they were refuges, and tell the story of their exodus from Egypt. In the book of Deuteronomy, after Moses comes down from the mountain for the final time carrying the carved stone tablets and God tells Moses it’s time for his people to journey to their final home, the scripture asks “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?” Right near the top of that list is Deuteronomy 10: 19 “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This idea appears again and again. Exodus 23:9, reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egyptian. And Leviticus 19:34 “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

In point of fact, none of the millions of people enacting the Passover Seder this year could personally remember being strangers in Egypt, so the scripture here is asking us to use our imaginations to enlarge our sense of “we” – we were strangers, and so we have some obligation to strangers. As we retell the story of the exodus, we imagine ourselves wandering in the desert, to feel in our hearts and in our moral imagination what it feels like to be a stranger, and feel a calling to love the stranger as you would have been loved.

We who live and work in the Valley, we know something about floods. We remember what it looked like here on North Street back in 2011, the streets and cars and trees covered with several inches of beige mud. We remember there were boats down on Main street. We remember that some of our neighbors had no power or water, couldn’t stay in their homes. We know there’s a river just a couple blocks that way. And we know that floods come with living by a river. Even though many of us have never been forced out of our homes for days or weeks or months, our sense of “we” is bigger, “we” know what it is like to have our homes flooded.

So strong was our feeling of kinship with those who were flooded out of their homes, that we were moved to open our own church building to welcome the stranger, at first just to use the bathroom, or be in a clean dry place. And because we are who we are, cooking immediately followed. There was a great outpouring of people wanting to make chili or cornbread or brownies. Day after day we served lunch in our little kitchen, and day after day we walked out into the neighborhood delivering brown bag lunches to neighbors who wanted them. And when we see coverage of the great floods this past fall, our hearts go out to them. We want to offer a hand, because we remember what it is like when your community is flooded.

Flooding is not new, there have always been big storms and human beings have always migrated, moved from place to place when conditions changed. But scientists tell us that as a symptom of the climate disruption now underway, we can expect an increase in extreme weather events. We can expect rising sea levels. For those of us who inland, it might be hard to get a sense of the urgency of these changes, of the impacts they are already having on people’s lives. Island nations far away are already seeing their homes irretrievably changed by rising sea levels. Like the islanders of Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, this is not a future crisis; their way of life, their home is coming to an end right now. The seawater is contaminating their water supply. The tides come up into their gardens, into their homes, and the salty water is making the land less fertile so they can no longer grow enough food in their gardens. School ends midday because the hungry children cannot pay attention into the afternoons. [ii] And sea levels keep rising.

Closer to home coastal towns in Alaska, Boston, Miami, New Jersey[iii] can expect similar impacts -- residents of low laying areas are already seeing effects “on available drinking water, roads and sewer lines”.[iv]

It’s just so hard to wrap your mind around; how could the way of life of towns we know and love be changed forever? The mind just shuts down when trying to assimilate that information. I think that’s
Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, New Orleans, Spring 2006
part of why I packed “Go Bags” for my family- to cross the boundary from “probably things will always be just like they are now” to “climate change is already happening.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, (the last year such a report was taken). Scientists predict this number will rise to at least 50 million by 2050. Some say it could be as high as 200 million.[v] I want to make it real for myself that we can’t take our warm dry home for granted. I want to imagine a larger we that includes the folks who will be forced out of their homes in Boston, New Jersey, Louisiana[vi] whose children will not be able to live in the homes they now inhabit. A “we” large enough to include the folks of Puerto Rico and New Guinea. We remember what it was like to be flooded, and so we reach out to support others who can’t go home because of flooding. We welcome the stranger.

So what does that look like? Here’s where our imagination comes in. If I were flooded out of my home where would I go? What would I bring? If you heard that your cousin in New Jersey or your sister in Boston were flooded out of their homes, how might you help? My friends’ parents live in Puerto Rico, and of course they flew to Ithaca to stay with her as soon as the airports reopened. It’s reassuring to have a pull out bed and an extra pile of blankets just in case our friends or family needed them. The Red Cross actually recommends making such plans for yourself and your family. There’s even a sheet you can fill out to help think it through. A useful conversation to have, especially during hurricane season when floods are on people’s minds.

The people in New Guinea we don’t know but it breaks our hearts when we hear the stories of vulnerable people with no place to go. Fortunately, the mission of UU Service Committee, who this congregation has supported faithfully for years, is to work with grassroots partners in effected areas. And one of those issues is climate forced displacement.

In addition to our partner work in Papua New Guinea, “to relocate households from the Carteret Islands to areas in mainland Bougainville,

· In Alaska, UUSC is supporting our partner is working with 16 Alaska Native Tribes “to to ensure the protection of their human rights if they are required to relocate as a consequence of climate change.”

· In Kiribati, a small nation in the Pacific ocean, “our partners are …. working to raise awareness about the unique needs of People Living with Disabilities in Disaster Risk Reduction planning and responses.”

· In Palau and Micronesia, our partner is [helping] remote rural villages to build protections against climate change hazards, [helping] communities self-organize and to advocate for assistance from their governments and the international community.”

And just like we can talk to our families about where we would go if we had to leave our homes, The service committee is advocating for a Global Compact on Migration[vii] “In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted in September 2016, the [UN] General Assembly decided to develop a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration. … The General Assembly will then hold an intergovernmental conference on international migration in 2018 with a view to adopting the global compact. ”[viii] This is a “significant opportunity to improve the governance on migration, to address the challenges associated with today’s migration, and to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development.”

Because, as generous as folks in this congregation might be, we can’t put up all the climate refugees in the world in our guest bedrooms. Fortunately global leaders are starting to understand that this need for migration in response to changes in climate, to extreme weather event, to rising sea levels, this is the new normal. “Developing countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kenya, … generously host the bulk of the world’s refugees without the GDP to match, while wealthier countries increase border controls and security checks at increasing expense.” Sadly the United States is one of those countries who is putting more energy into keeping refugees out than helping them to safety, which is ironic because we are one of the countries contributing most to the climate disruption that is displacing them. “In early December, the US pulled out [of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants ] Rex Tillerson saying, "in this case, we simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders." [ix]

All of us, every American family were strangers on this shore once. “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” That go-bag by my door reminds me, that we may be strangers once again someday. As people living in Huston and New Orleans know only too well.

Fortunately we here in this beloved community are good at this. Just as we welcome Sunday morning visitors to our congregation with open arms and delicious baked goods, as we welcome visiting speakers with new ideas. Just as we served meals to hundreds of our neighbors displaced by flooding back in 2011, as we made macaroni salad and peanut butter cake last June for the free meal at the Methodist church, The “we” of our little congregation is a big “we.” So big that it reaches all the way to Huston and Florida and Puerto Rico, all the way to Alaska and New Guinea. And just as we make a plan with our own family about where we would go in an emergency, we support the Service Committee and all those world leaders with the foresight to prepare global equivalent of a family emergency plan.

There are a lot of people in the world right now who have lost their homes, and sadly more will follow. And since for we ourselves know the feelings of a stranger, since we are all one, it’s time to get out our metaphorical pull-out- beds and soup pots and welcome the stranger, as we would want to be welcomed.










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