Saturday, February 20, 2016

Rembering where we came from, welcoming the immigrants and refugees

Like over 50% of Americans, I am a descendant of immigrants who came to this land within 
My father and me around 1950
last hundred or so years. Approximately 13% of those living in America today are foreign-born. 17% are Latino. Over 12% of Americans came from Africa hundreds of years ago, by force, not by choice, but nonetheless have become an integral part of American life and culture. Except for the First People, who comprise around 1-2% of those living on what they call Turtle Island, we are all descendants of immigrants, many of whom were political and economic refugees.

My Greek ancestors started coming to this land at the end of 19th century, most of them moving to Chicago and New York. Nearly 400,000 came to the US during the first two decades of the 20th century. Most were fleeing political chaos and war in Greece and seeking economic opportunities in America. This huge influx of Greeks combined with millions of Italians led to a backlash against Southern Europeans that was very similar to today’s reaction against Latin Americans. The Immigration Act of 1924 imposed harsh restrictions on Southern European immigrant groups. Under that law, only one hundred Greeks per year were allowed legal entry into the United States.
My father was a Greek immigrant who came to the US around that time. He was only fourteen years old. When I hear about refugee children crossing our Southern border, I think of my Dad. What was it like for him to flee his homeland and come to the urban jungle of New York? He talked very little about these days, other than saying how hard he worked. Seven days a week, washing dishes and doing other menial jobs, with miserable pay and maybe a couple of hours off on Sunday to go to church. And there were no job protection for immigrants like him, no benefits.
He came from a beautiful jewel of an island called Andros, one of the largest islands of the
Left to right: my father George
with his brother Louie
Cyclades. Jill and I spent Easter there last year with my Greek relatives, and we absolutely loved it. Andros is known as the “island of sailors” since many shipping magnates settled there, and many of the young men of this island took to the sea because of lack of other job opportunities. My father came from an impoverished family of 17 children. He was smart enough to earn a scholarship to study in Athens, but the family didn’t have money for his room and board, so he got a job as a cabin boy on a ship bound for New York. When he arrived, he “jumped ship” and went to live with his brother Louie. He spoke no English and learned what he could by reading newspapers. He became a voracious reader of newspapers and books, and although he had little formal education, he could hold his own in conversations with professors. In fact, that was his nickname in his family. If he had lived to see me earn a Ph D, I’m sure he would have been very proud.
My father moved to Princeton, NJ, in the 1930s where a few Greeks lived and most either owned or worked in restaurants. My father worked hard and kept a low profile until the War broke out. Like millions of Italians and Greeks, he was given a choice: be 

drafted or be deported. He joined the military and was sent to England where he met and
My father in uniform
fell in love with my mother, a Scottish woman who worked in a clothing factory in Manchester.  My father was an infantryman and fought in the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He earned his citizenship the hard way. He received his citizenship papers in Berlin three weeks before the war ended. He then went back to the United States where he was joined by my mother, who was only 20 years old. They were married in 1946 and three years later I was born. A child of war who became an advocate for peace.
I was deeply moved by a recent film called “Brooklyn” which depicts the coming-of-age of young Irish woman who came to the United States and married an Italian at about the same time that my mother came to this country and married a Greek. It is a poignant story that shows hard it was to be an immigrant in those days, especially for women.
It is even harder to be refugee. In the past decade sixty million people have been displaced from their homes because of war, violence, and the current climate crisis.
Many people have opened up their hearts and homes to these refugees, but some have hardened their hearts. Sadly, some of these hard-hearted people profess to be Christians.
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow noted, the Torah states 37 times that we are supposed to treat foreigners as if they were native born because our ancestors were once foreigners. He also observed very perceptively that the Bible probably had to repeat this commandment 37 times in part because people tend to become hard-hearted once they settle down and “own” property. We forget that “the earth is the Lord’s” and we don’t really own it. We are accountable to the true owner for how we use it.
In Hebrews 13 the apostle Paul reminds us that that strangers may be angels in disguise and should be treated as such. In a talk she recently gave for a group called “Jesus for Revolutionaries,” Alexia Salvatierra reminded us that the word “angel” literally means messengers. How different immigrants and refugees would seem to us if we saw them as God’s messengers!
Hospitality is the core teaching of the Abrahamic faith. Muslims, Christians and Jews all claim to be spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, a migrant couple who showed hospitality to three strangers. As a result, their descendants were blessed by God.

Greek islander giving a hand to a Syrian refugee
I began this reflection by describing how Greeks immigrants came to this land as economic and political refugees in the early part of the 20th century, and were mostly not welcomed. During the past few years hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees have come to the shores of Greek islands, and the people there have welcomed them warmly, even though Greece is undergoing an economic crisis comparable to the Great Depression. I am proud of these Greeks who are committed to practicing filoxenia, love of the stranger, instead of xenophobia, fear of the stranger. We Americans can learn a lot from these Greek islanders.
America has been blessed by strangers who have come to our shores with their dreams, their ambitions and their gifts. America has been enriched beyond measure by many cultures and diverse religions.  We should welcome them with open hearts and open arms, just like the Greek islanders. So I’d like to conclude this reflection with a song that we will be using at the Palm Sunday Peace Parade this year.

Abraham Journeyed to a New Country

BUNESSAN D ("Morning Has Broken")

Abraham journeyed to a new country;
Sarah went with him, journeying too.
Slaves down in Egypt fled Pharaoh's army;
 Ruth left the home and people she knew.

Mary and Joseph feared Herod's order;
Soldiers were coming! They had to flee.
Taking young Jesus, they crossed the border;
So was our Lord a young refugee.

Some heard the promise — God's hand would bless them!
Some fled from hunger, famine and pain.
Some left a place where others oppressed them;
All trusted God and started again.

Did they know hardship? Did they know danger?
Who shared a home or gave them some bread?
Who reached a hand to welcome the stranger?
Who saw their fear and gave hope instead?

God, our own families came here from far lands;
We have been strangers, "aliens" too.
May we reach out and offer a welcome
As we have all been welcomed by you.


Biblical References: Genesis 12; Ruth 1; Matthew 2:13-16, 10:40, 25:31-46; Hebrews 11, 13:2; Leviticus 19:18, 33-34
Tune: Traditional Gaelic melody ("Morning Has Broken")  
Text: Copyright © 2010 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
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