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Welcoming the Stranger

As given by The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Minister and President, MASS Conference, UCC
Old South Church, Boston, MA
4/29/09

Surely, this is a moment when God – who is known to us by many names – is most pleased. Listening to the music of many traditions; to the harmonies in many languages; to the melodies that bring to mind for different ones of us the distant home of our birth – all of this is a profound reminder of what the world so often forgets: that our differences – in culture, language, religion, appearance – our differences are an enormous gift! God made us different in the hope that our hearts might expand beyond what is familiar – so that our lives might be enriched as we see the world through the eyes of a stranger.
We are here tonight because we know this truth. And when we see the world through the eyes of a stranger, the most human response is also the response taught by each of our religious traditions: we want to do whatever we can to make that stranger feel at home.

Refugee Immigration Ministry exists for just this reason: to respond to God’s call to welcome the stranger by harnessing the strength of religious communities on behalf of refugees throughout eastern Massachusetts. While many of you come from the congregations that are already engaged in this ministry, I hope the rest of you will consider how you might bring this ministry to your congregation.

Why? Let me speak personally to four distinct reasons.

This work is important because we live in a time when innocent people are being uprooted from their homes by war. Last summer I spent a month visiting many of the partners which my denomination – the United Church of Christ – has in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. In Lebanon, we walked the narrow alleyways of Sabra and Shatilla – refugee camps that have become the estranged home of three generations of Palestinians. In Syria and Jordan, we visited several partner organizations which offer much the same kind of assistance which RIM offers refugees here in Massachusetts – but these centers are serving tens of thousands of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees who have fled the war. I’ll never forget the pain of a young mother and her 8 year old boy – both of them suffering from post traumatic stress – having seen their beloved husband and father executed before their very eyes. The human cost of war is beyond all telling. And yet, since the war began, the United States allowed less than 25,000 Iraqi refugees to enter.

A second reason this work is important is that we live in a time when the borders that divide people are being strengthened. While we were visiting partners in the West Bank and in Israel, every day we encountered the wall which separates Israel from the West Bank. Ninety-five percent of Palestinians who live in the West Bank must deal with this twenty-five foot tall Wall that is visible from their neighborhood. All Palestinians are prohibited from traveling on the pristine highways that connect Israel with her settlements - settlements that blight the West Bank like chicken pox. Palestinians who are married to Israeli citizens are unable to live in Jerusalem, and with other Palestinians must submit to security checkpoints such as the one that took us three and a half hours to navigate(even though we are U.S. citizens).

A third reason this work is important is that we live in a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows wider every day. Last week my wife and I were traveling in the southern Arizona desert region. The road we were on ran parallel to the border with Mexico – often inside of a mile. Even though both of us knew that the United States had built a wall along this border, seeing it was an arresting experience. On both sides of the wall there was an endless desert, there were people who spoke both Spanish and English, and there were people with relatives in both Mexico and the United States. But on one side of the wall there were lush green golf courses, expensive motor homes, and all kinds of services for any imaginable need; while on the other side there were shacks. All I could think of were the words which we in the United Church of Christ often use when we share communion: “we long for the day where sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.”

There is a fourth reason this work is so important. Global warming is already impacting the least of these among us, causing floods, droughts and rising sea levels that have initiated what will become the greatest human migration of all time. The poorest of the poor are the ones being displaced – not because of anything they have done – but because, for 150 years, we in the First World have been unrestrained in our demand for energy and insatiable in our need to consume. The exemplary work of Refugee Immigration Ministries is a prophetic ministry that will need to be replicated in every First World community as the momentum of global warming continues to run its course. Because of your work – as the plight of refugees expands exponentially along with the exponential warming of the planet – hundreds of thousands of environmental activists will have a model to follow as they help you respond to the plight of those forced to flee an environment they could no longer accommodate.

There’s something else which this work has in common with the work of environmental activists. Refugee Immigration Ministries recognizes the enormous energy that is available when clusters of congregations in a single community unite in common cause. As our society attempts to make the changes global warming will necessitate, the unit of survival is fast becoming the community. You are people who already understand this – and in the years ahead, the world will need your wisdom more and more.

So thank you... thank you for your ministry with uprooted people.... thank you for all that you do to build community that binds people across boundaries and borders... and thank you for continually lifting up the common good, the common blessings, and the common future we share with people of every nation, ethnicity and religious persuasion. May the God that has led us thus far along the way continue to prosper this work. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in the Commonwealth. In addition to leading churches in Newton, MA and Shaker Heights, OH he served as Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (USA), an interfaith pacifist organization. His major interests as an activist are the environment and interfaith dialog.

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