By Kenneth D. MacHarg
I remember the phone call as if it happened yesterday, even though it actually took place 36 years ago.
I had called a member of Louisville’s Laotian Hmong community to seek his help translating for an arriving Hmong refugee woman.
After agreeing to assist, he asked me for the person’s name. When I told him he broke down crying. “That’s my mother,” he told me. “I haven’t seen her in ten years.”
What a joyful reunion at the airport that day. Tears, laughter, joy and a new future in a new but unknown land.
No stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler (Job, discussing his devotion to God) (Job 31:32)
I was reminded of that day when I recently read an excellent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal that allowed several refugees who have settled in the Derby City to tell their own, personal stories.
While none of those people came under my watch, their stories reminded me of one of the most meaningful things I have ever done.
In the 1980s I was the executive director of a multi-denominational agency which facilitated the placement of displaced people from a dozen or more countries.
We received refugees who fled from Southeast Asia after the war—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other nations in the region.
In time, the massive Mariel boat lift from Cuba began and we were among the first to accept men, women, children, singles and families from that island nation. There were others as well, including several from Haiti and Romania.
As I read the C-J articles, various pictures came into my head. I remember a Vietnamese man who came to my office shortly after it was announced we had received a grant to help with refugee resettlement.
He carried a photo of his mother. Following the end of the war, he had communicated with officials in every refugee holding camp in Southeast Asia. Finally, he located his mother and wanted to know if we could help reunite the family in Louisville.
It took a while, but mother and son were eventually brought back together.
He never could say thank you enough. Every Christmas for the following decade he would show up at our house with a gift. One year it was Vietnamese candy, another year a briefcase. Each time he gave us an update on how his family was doing, and thanked me profusely for bringing her to the United States
Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
Then there was the Cuban community which gave clothes out of closets, blankets off of beds and food from refrigerators to help strangers, Cuban brothers and sisters, resettle. One doctor told me of his struggle when he came to the U.S. earlier. Until he could establish himself, he walked the streets of Miami picking up furniture, broken tools and toys and expired food to feed his family. He and his fellow Cubans were not going to let that happen to the newcomers, and therefore, they resettled many.
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
Another image was one of those flash pictures—happening in an instant but making a life-long impression. I was at the Fort Chaffee Army Base in Fort Smith, Arkansas where many Cuban refugees were being housed pending placement.
I walked down the fence line that separated me from those in the holding area. All along the fence people were waving and shouting, “Choose me, choose me.” It reminded me of those horrible photographs of concentration camps in World War II where people were pictured lining the fences begging for a scrap of food or a piece of warm clothing.
I wanted to choose many more, but that selection was not mine to make and I could only take what our capacity to resettle would allow.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36)
Another memory is the little girl who is pictured over my shoulder at the Louisville airport. She and her family had just come from Haiti and were being welcomed into the new city. For her, it was bewildering, frightening, and scary. As people hugged and kissed the adults, she let me pick her up and hold her in my arms. (The photo appeared in either the Courier-Journal or Louisville Times in 1980 or 1981.)
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Were there those who opposed having those refugees come? Of course, we heard from some, but not as many as I feared.
In the long run, we found the congregations of Louisville welcoming, with a compassion to help those who came resettle and become functioning members of society.
Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners. (Exodus 23:9)
Why was this ministry so meaningful and fulfilling? Because I was able… to participate in reuniting a mother and a son separated for so many years; to see people who, themselves, had come to the U.S. as refugees reach out to others in a similar situation; to hold a frightened little girl in my arms and tell her that God loves her and had given her a new home where she would be safe and healthy and well-fed; see that God gave me the opportunity to feed the hungry, house the homeless and love the foreigner in our midst.
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:40)
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