World Refugee Sunday Sermon

My name is Laura Youngberg, and I have been a member of All Saints for many years. I am preaching this morning as part of our All Saints observance of World Refugee Day.  Back in February, when I shared with Stephan my work with the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, and the history of All Saint’s support for refugees, we could not begin to imagine what our world would look like on June 21.  Pandemic, lockdown, more than a hundred thousand US COVID deaths, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others to the vicious brutality of racism and bigotry, pushing for defunding police, citizens gathering in masks to demand change.  It’s a lot.  A whole lot.  So to say “and refugees too!” seems too much.  But it’s all connected isn’t it.  Because we are all connected.  And what we are experiencing now, this uprooting, turmoil, disruption and realization we can never go back to the “old normal,” this is a story I have heard before. 

Worldwide there are nearly 26 million refugees, over half of them children.  A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave her homeland and is unable to return because she or he has experienced persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution can be related to race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group. 57 percent of today’s refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.  The current administration has been systematically reducing the number of refugees admitted to the United States since the “Muslim Ban” was first implemented, and right now only accepts refugees on emergency case-by-case admissions, with the entire refugee resettlement system paused during the pandemic. Millions are waiting in camps or cities, with no hope of returning home, and little chance of building a new home in another country.  Even for those few who are able to be safely resettled, the trauma and loss remain.  In six years of working with refugees, and listening to their stories, I have witnessed the heartbreak of losing home, family, community, identity. 

Several years ago my organization hosted a poetry workshop for refugee teenagers, with the hope of helping to share those stories.  Dina, a refugee Iraqi high school student, wrote this poem that has stayed with me over time:

How can I describe you, Iraq!

My soul is missing your air…
How can I describe you…

I lived in your land.

Iraq, my tears are running from your sadness.

The black wind blows on us…

I ask you “Ahl Ahbait”:

Do you agree on what happened to us?

You really “Left” us, and no one stood with us.

This is not your behavior…!

The fire is burning and destroying us…!

And you did not stop it!?

There is so much heartbreak and loss in this cry by a teenage girl, who has lost everything in fleeing a homeland where she was persecuted by those she thought of as neighbors.   There is no going back to “normal” for Dina and her family. 

In today’s Hebrew Scripture reading, Abraham and Sarah force Hagar from her home, sending her into the desert with her child Ishmael. It is a brutal story.  “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac”… So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.  When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.  Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.”

In early March I sat in a crowded living room with at least two dozen other women, almost all refugees, sitting together to hold space for a mother mourning her daughter, dead of cancer at 30. “Habibti, habibti” she keened.  “Beloved girl, beloved girl.”  This mother had come to the US as a refugee, fleeing Iraq where the family could no longer live safely.  They had left behind everything and everyone they knew.  I have a photo in my office of a pair of eyeglasses that she brought with her, her mother’s glasses to hold, since she could no longer visit her mother’s grave.  For the first two years after she got here, she was separated from her daughter, who was still in Iraq.  I remember the day her daughter arrived, delayed an extra year because her newborn son had to go through a background security check in order to be admitted into the US.  On this day in March, we sat together, on couches and chairs brought in from other rooms, in silence and tears and prayers, holding on to a mother in her grief. “She lifted up her voice and wept.”

But she was not alone.                          

At home in Iraq, this room would have been filled with sisters and nieces, aunts and cousins.  The family that filled in the cracks of every moment of life in a place where you have lived for generations.  Instead, here was a room of women who were strangers when she arrived in the US, and now cradled her in her grief.  Each of these women was also a refugee or worked with refugees, building a community together to fill the space that had been lost when they lost their homes.  These women were not just Iraqi, but Syrian, and Palestinian, and Afghan, and Somali.  They were connected to each other through our organization, the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, and the commitment of people like All Saints to support their work creating a welcoming and nurturing space to grieve, to grow, to love, and to build community.

“And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.”

A refugee can never go “home” again.  That place is gone.  We can never go “back” again to the way things were.  That time is over.  We can be stuck still, or we can go forward.  But we do not do it alone.  God is in the wilderness hearing the cries of mothers and children.  Are we listening?  What do we hear?

I hear that there is a new well in the desert, a new way to live together.  I hear that the rejected and oppressed will be a great nation.  Will we be part of it?  Will we stand together with the mother crying for her child?  Will we help the child crying out for God’s intervention? Where do we go from here?  I have learned from the refugees I work with, that the only way forward is to build that community of love that hears each other’s grief, that holds each other up, that moves each other forward, that makes space to welcome the newcomer, that shows what we know to be true.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God.