We Are All Refugees…Some of Us Just Don’t Know It

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My wife and I are one month away from being homeless…at least we thought we might be until yesterday. We are currently in the process of buying a house, and everything was moving along smoothly until the inspector discovered an abandoned oil tank under the driveway. If it turned out that the tank had leaks, it would require extensive cleanup that could take months, even a year or more. That would be a big problem since our landlord has already rented our apartment to a new tenant starting April 1. Fortunately for us, it turned out that the tank had no leaks, so our family’s brush with temporary homelessness will materialize into nothing more than that.

A momentary scare like this one tends to make one very grateful for the roof over one’s head. Even more significantly, Margaret and I are very much aware that we will soon have the privilege of moving into a home of our own at the very moment that we are witnessing a worldwide migrant crisis. Millions of people have been displaced not only from their homes but also their homelands by violent conflict, religious persecution, and economic hardship. This is a heart-wrenching backdrop to a joyful moment in our lives. How is a socially conscious, soon-to-be-homeowner Catholic to feel about all this?

A big reason that we are excited about finally having a home to call our own is that this means having a home to share with others. Margaret and I love to host. For me a dinner party with good friends is an image and foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, an analogy that Jesus himself drew frequently (see Mt 22:1-14; 25:5-15; Lk 12:31-41). From the time of our engagement, we have talked talked about our hopes that our home would be a place where neighbors would congregate, where our kids’ friends would stick around for dinner, where people would know they always have a place to stay. We have hoped that when we had a house one day, we would be able to open our doors to those in need as our parents have done.

Perhaps it is because all things house-related are consuming my thoughts these days that I was so impacted by a line I recently read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book How to Love. The Zen Master writes, “As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful.” This idea of building a home, not just around oneself, but within oneself strikes me as profoundly important, especially given the current state of world affairs. My wife and I will soon have a new home that we can open up to others. However, a brick-and-mortar house is not a prerequisite for hospitality. Each of us is a home unto ourselves, or at least we can be if we commit to the necessary interior work. (How much time most of us spend selecting wallpaper and manicuring the lawn and how little time getting our spiritual house in order!) All that we need to feel at home and to make others feel the same—namely, love—is with us wherever we go. Even for those who have been driven from their dwelling places, a kind word or a cup of tea extended in friendship can be all they need to feel a sense of home again.

In this sense hospitality is not the sole prerogative of the well-to-do or even average homeowners; it is a mandate of faith for all Christians. Few commands are repeated more often throughout the pages of the Bible than that of caring for strangers or aliens. (See a sampling here.) Jesus affirms this key tenet of faith by identifying with the homeless and the stranger: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:15-25). Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus lay out the criteria for entering God’s kingdom more explicitly than in Matthew 25 where he says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:34-35). Scripture leaves no room for excuses on this score. We are all bound to care for the strangers in our midst. Here Jesus does not require something we cannot give. We may not all own houses, but we all have hearts. Therefore, we all have the capacity to welcome others into that inner space that constitutes a home in the deepest sense of the word.

In the language of Scripture itself one detects a hint that the people of God have often resisted their duty to care for the vulnerable among them. In the very first mention of this duty, God reminds God’s people, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). If empathy for the suffering of a fellow human being is not enough to compel a compassionate response (and it seems that too often it isn’t), the people of God should at least show some sympathy because they too were once in the same situation.

It will not be lost on readers of this site how relevant this passage is for a country like ours that is constituted overwhelmingly by immigrants and descendants of immigrants and which is now sending strong signals that immigrants (at least immigrants of certain origins and religious beliefs) are not welcome here. To be sure, the US government is not bound by the dictates of Christian Scripture, nor should it be. Immigration policy is a terribly complicated matter that must balance responsibilities to the global community with the interests and safety of US citizens. Debate over immigration policy is therefore to be expected, even welcomed, in a democracy like ours. However, regardless of how stringent one believes requirements for admission to this country should be (in fact, they are already quite stringent), there is no excuse for Christians to close their hearts to those in need.

Yes, terrorism is a real concern. We all feel less safe these days knowing that a person with no regard for their own life and bent on taking the lives of others could appear at any moment in our local school or mall or workplace. These fears are legitimate, but so too are the fears of the refugees fleeing to our country to escape violence far more prevalent than anything any of us has experienced on American soil. To fear is only natural, but, as our bishops have stated, to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others is un-American and certainly un-Christian.

All of us here on Earth are exiles from our heavenly home. Some of us, however, are shielded temporarily from that reality by the illusion of security created by personal wealth and comfortable homes. My wife and I are numbered among those susceptible to this illusion, but our hope—for ourselves and for our nation—is that the gift of our home will prompt us to open our doors and our hearts to others rather than isolating ourselves within.