President Donald Trump recently announced that refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries would be denied entry into the United States. As a white, American-born school teacher in a Midwest Catholic school, I didn’t anticipate that this would change my day-to-day life very much. Then a student’s prayer stopped me in my tracks.
In my theology classroom, our daily devotion is a prayer of thanksgiving called “Gratitude Journals.” Every day, the students write five things about which they are grateful, and they’re told to never repeat a past entry. It’s hard. You really have to take notice of the little things, and you have to be creative. So anything goes. And I mean anything. I’ve gotten everything from “creamy garlic mashed potatoes” to “Harambe” to “the way my mom laughs when she’s not stressed” and everything in between. My students come from all sorts of cultural, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds so almost nothing surprises me. I usually just smile and call on the next student. But this week I heard one that stopped me in my tracks:
“What are we grateful for today, people?” I asked.
“What was that?” I had heard, but I needed to make sure.
These students are fourteen and fifteen years old. They don’t yet understand political rhetoric, extreme nationalism, or norms that sustain the delicate balance of democracy.
Their parents do.
The same day I heard this distressing gratitude journal entry, I received a note from the office to give to another student. As I glanced at it and passed it on, I had to fight to hold in my laughter. It read in all caps:
“DON’T MICROWAVE YOUR BURRITO IN THE FOIL…Love, Mom.”
These students are still figuring out how to warm up their own lunches, how to write a three paragraph essay, how to wear deodorant and look cool walking down the hallway with textbooks in their arms. Most things they know about life and the real world they learned from the adults they live with. That’s what was so concerning to me about the gratitude journal.
As a teacher, I strive to keep my political views to myself. During election time, Clinton supporters, Trump supporters, and third party supporters had equal rights in my classroom. My faith does not make me part of a political party, and neither should it impact my students’ choice of political affiliation.
But, when it comes to President Trump’s recent ban of refugees coming into the United States from certain countries, the faith is clear: Jesus says welcome the stranger. All strangers.
Fr. James Martin put it well: “Jesus doesn’t say help the stranger only if there’s no risk to you. Or help the stranger only if it’s convenient. Or help the stranger only if he or she is the same religion you are.” He just says help.
When parents baptize their children into the Christian faith they promise to teach their children what it is that Jesus taught. The rite goes like this:
“You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”
I always wonder if parents know what they have undertaken.
Love God, love your neighbor.
Pope Francis has a message for parents who think they are handing on the faith while handing on the idea that it’s okay to ban refugees: “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty.”
I realize that, at this age, my students’ “beliefs” are still really a reflection of their families’ beliefs. I don’t hold my freshman students responsible for thinking it can be congruent with a Christian faith to turn away refugees or for thinking it’s okay to put metal in the microwave. I do hold their parents responsible.
Don’t let our students nuke their burritos and burn down the cafeteria. And please, don’t let our students believe that the message of Christ is anything but a message of justice, compassion, and welcome to all, especially the refugee.
Allison Walter is a theology teacher and track coach. She was formerly press secretary with Faith in Public Life and policy education associate with NETWORK Lobby Organization in Washington, DC. She has also written for the National Catholic Reporter, Patheos, and Busted Halo.