CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: The Refugee’s Dream
After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."
- Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
The Holy Family is in exile. Herod, obsessed with finding the King of the Jews, orders the extermination of all male children in Israel. Joseph, warned in a dream, realizes there are no options—flee or die. Their flight takes them to Egypt, where the family remains until news of Herod’s death reaches Joseph (again via a dream), letting him know that it is safe to return home—to Israel. Complications arise after the holy trio crosses the border. The plan to return to Joseph’s hometown are thwarted when he learns that Herod’s son has assumed the throne. The family’s security is once again in jeopardy. A dream reveals that safety may be found in a backwater town called Nazareth. And there, the family finds refuge.
Gangs roam the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Maria realizes that she and her two daughters are easy prey and no longer safe in this increasingly violent country. They must flee. She receives letters and a little money from her sister working as a cleaning person in Virginia. She is told that the new president of the United States will welcome refugees. So, she gathers what little the family has and joins a caravan headed on foot to Juarez, Mexico, nearly 2000 miles away. Her dream is to be granted asylum in the U.S., but, when she miraculously reaches her destination, she is not permitted to enter the U.S. Instead, she and her girls must languish in a detention center facing an uncertain future. So, what happens to a dream deferred?
Scripture and tradition tell us we cannot ignore or otherwise dismiss the plight of Maria and her family. For they are the spiritual inheritors of God’s dream-promise to Joseph of welcome and protection for his family as aliens in exile. Israel is commanded by God: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were also strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19, NRSV). And Israel is further instructed to obey the God who “loves strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18, NRSV). Israel itself knew exile in Babylon—“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137:1 BCP 792)—and exulted when God brought them out of exile—“The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel” (Psalm 147:2, BCP 804). In the New Testament, those blessed by God are commended by Jesus for welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. (Matt. 25:35, NRSV).
Today, nearly everyone in this country (except Native Americans) can point to a time when either they or their ancestors were strangers on these shores. Our history is replete with stories about our nation’s experiences with refugees. Far too often, fear, prejudice and stereotypes dictated how the alien was treated, and sadly that is all too often still the case today.
The U.S. Border Patrol reported more than 1.6 million encounters with migrants along the southwest border with Mexico in fiscal year 2021. An “encounter” refers to an event in which a migrant is immediately expelled to their home country or an apprehension in which a migrant is detained in the United States at least temporarily. Nearly 98% of these encounters involved people from countries other than Mexico. Currently, 54% of the encounters resulted in expulsion.
Clearly our immigration system is broken, and our policies are badly in need of reform. Yet, for decades our Congress has failed to enact meaningful legislation. While there are instances in which we have truly welcomed the stranger—Afghan refugees being the most recent example—we as followers of Christ have by and large failed in our Christian responsibility to care for the refugee. Meanwhile, it is estimated there are more than 8 million undocumented workers in this country, many of whom live in poverty conditions. Their plight too has been largely ignored.
So, what can we do?
First, get educated. For instance, learn about the work The Episcopal Church is doing through its migrant and refugee resettlement ministries, Episcopal Migration Ministries. Locally, discover our Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFWM) based in Dunn, North Carolina. There are numerous volunteer opportunities available. Its website declares: “EFWM responds to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of farmworkers and their families, and supports opportunities for them to become self-directive.” Ongoing community events offer a chance to witness firsthand the impact EFWM is making in the migrant worker community. Opportunities also are available for congregations and allies to get involved.
The Episcopal Church recently reported that it had reached a milestone of resettling nearly 100,000 refugees since it undertook this ministry 40 years ago (Episcopal News Service, 12/8/21). Much remains to be done. Countless refugees still seek to be inheritors of God’s dream-promise to Joseph and the Holy Family. We have the resources to make that dream-promise a reality for those in exile. We can advocate on their behalf with our legislators. We can show up and give visible and meaningful support, demonstrating our commitment to care for the stranger. Matthew’s narrative underscores God’s abiding concern for the welfare of the dispossessed, for their security and well-being. It should be ours as well. The dream of the refugee must not be deferred any longer—allowed to “dry up like a raisin in the sun” (Langston Hughes, “A Dream Deferred"). Let’s work to make the dream a reality.
The Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, retired, is the former canon to the ordinary and chief of staff of the Diocese of Newark.
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