Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Emporia and Refugee Resettlement - A Social Cauldron Ready to Explode

“The making of an American begins at the point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land.”
- James Baldwin

Here in Emporia, Kansas there is a social cauldron boiling. Catholic Charities in Kansas City, along with our State Department, Tyson Foods, and state social service agencies are moving this city toward becoming a refugee resettlement center, particularly Somali refugees who have been bounced from place to place ever since they arrived here in America.

When the announcement was made public in the Emporia Gazette on November 3rd the backlash was palpable. Some in power claimed that the reaction was stemming from hatred and racism. While Emporia, like any community, has its share of racists and bigots, the claim made by those who should have known better was a categorical lie. The overwhelming majority of the people who live here are of good will, eager to lend a helping hand to those in need. They’re not racists or xenophobes. This is a good and generous city.

The thing that got people upset was the fact that Federal bureaucrats, a large employer, and social service agencies seem to be making decisions about our collective futures without our consent and with little regard to the impact their decisions will have on us.

There’s going to be a meeting tomorrow night so that the public can make its concerns known. That’s the reason given and I hope it will actually go according to that plan. But I know enough about politicians and bureaucrats to be concerned that they intend to monopolize the time and tune out our concerns. We’ll see.

I’ve prepared something to say at the meeting. I’m not sure I’ll get to share it. So, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on my blog. They express what a lot of us here are feeling. For those who read this blog, please get the word out. People in positions of authority and responsibility are acting recklessly, doing great damage to those they say they want to help and to the communities affected by their reckless behavior. What’s happening here is being duplicated in other small towns in this country.

The transcript follows, in full.

In Monday’s Gazette Pat Kelley said rightly that this is a time for us to get answers. But, like most things Pat Kelley says he got the little things right and the big things wrong. He said in his editorial that the root to the problem that brings us here is fear. While that may be the case for a few, most of us are here because our trust has been betrayed. That is the truth and that’s why we’re here.

We’re not here because we’re bigots, racists, or xenophobes. We’re here to get answers to questions we have, not express hatred. We’ve come to extend the hand of brotherhood, not hatred.

It’s unfortunate that some in positions of trust and authority have labeled those who question in such a manner. This issue should occupy the highest moral ground, but some are using it as an opportunity to misinform, mis-label, and use political sleight of hand. Because of this they have lost that high ground.

I don’t believe it’s too late to climb that mountain, but I can say with certainty that time is of the essence.

How have we gotten to this point? It’s taken years and the moral failures that have broken the chords of trust are everywhere. What is being played out here in Emporia is being played out against the backdrop of international failures on a grand scale. International institutions that were founded on the premise of international justice have rejected their mandates in favor of inaction and greed. We’ve seen Rwanda, North Korea, Darfur, and the Balkans. We’ve witnessed the food for oil scandal and profit schemes built on the backs of the world’s poor and needy. The betrayal of trust has been monumental.

Americans have tried to fill this void. For my Somali brothers and sisters I want to remind you that it was a mission of mercy that originally bound us together. When international institutions failed, we felt compelled to step into the void. America, as it had done in the Balkans, came to relieve the suffering of Muslims, not compound it. What we did was in the best American tradition. Or motivation was justice and mercy.

Since those early days in Mogadishu America has kindly offered opportunity to the oppressed of Somalia. We’ve opened our doors. Unfortunately our national institutions have betrayed our trust here as well. Our State Department, with all the institutional power at its disposal, has given the Somali people a few days of orientation and then sent them pillar to post throughout America. They’ve used what bureaucrats call unfunded mandates. Many of us see this as a way for them to wash their hands like Pontius Pilate of old. When the inevitable backlash has come they act as though they’re surprised. Just what did they expect? Did they expect us to believe there would be no price tag? This is not a self-funded endeavor. Someone is going to have to pay for this and it does not appear that it will be those who’ve waved their magic wands in Washington, D.C. While we in Emporia and other communities will have to wrestle mightily with how to come up with the resources necessary, those who have set this chain in motion will be eating sumptuous meals in Foggy Bottom, reflecting on their own virtue. The betrayal of our trust in this area is every bit as monumental as the international failures.

Closer to home, in Kansas City, a service agency has taken up the mantle. On November 3rd Steve Weitkamp of Catholic Charities told the Gazette that in the future he expected Emporia to be developed as a refugee center. He further told the Gazette, “I expect that there will be direct re-settlement here.” “If re-settlement starts here, that will expand our role. ... I also see at some point the office here could possibly become cut loose from us and become an office on its own, applying for funding. If the numbers of refugees increase, it is possible the local office would apply to Washington to become a sub office.”

If the people of Emporia felt powerless and betrayed in the face of Federal mandates, it was all compounded with that declaration. Many Emporians now felt that decisions about their futures were being made without their consultation or consent. Those feelings of betrayal were, I believe, justified. We’d like to believe that Catholic Charities’ motives are benevolent, but I must be honest and say that I and others have serious misgivings in this regard. I see a bureaucracy hungry to become larger. Mr. Weitkamp’s statement of November 3rd says as much.

For many of us this seems to be a case of things being set in motion with little regard to the people of Emporia. I doubt that Mr. Weitkamp knows much about us. He probably doesn’t know that our poverty rate is over 17% or that our household incomes are far below the Kansas and national averages. He doesn’t know my wife’s mother, an eighty-eight year old widow living on a small pension and caring for a developmentally disabled son. Each day when my wife and I visit her she recounts the ways she tries to save money. “Lettuce is 10 cents cheaper at Aldi’s.” “I don’t like going to Wal-Mart because it costs more gas money to get there than it does the other stores.” “Phil, could you fill my car up with gas. I heard the price is going to go up two cents a gallon later today.”

Do these agencies really want us to believe that this is going to be a cost neutral venture? Do they really believe us to be rubes, so gullible that we’ll swallow anything fed to us without consideration to its effect on us? We’re being told that there really won’t be much impact. We simply don’t believe that’s credible. Adding 1,000 refugees to an already high poverty city is clearly going to compound our problem. In fact, based on the numbers, it could have as much as a three percent impact. Our poverty rate could increase to as much as twenty percent. Is that Catholic Charities idea of a cost-neutral solution?

And, the movers and shakers seem to be stunned by the backlash. Why in God’s name would that be so? It seems to me that it can only be because they’ve hatched their plans without any regard for the citizens of this city. I doubt that Catholic Charities even considered my wife’s mother or many other Emporians when they set their plan in motion. I doubt they even cared. The moral bankruptcy in that position is evident to me.

Our largest employer, Tyson, has given many Somalis employment. They’d like us to believe that their purposes here are noble. Well, that dog won’t hunt. Tyson’s purpose is profit, pure and simple. If their purposes were so noble, why have Tyson and other corporations in the meat processing industry caught the attention of Human Rights Watch? Is Human Rights Watch wrong when they say categorically that minorities are being pitted against each other, Somali against Hispanic, Hispanic against Vietnamese, minority against minority, all in a relentless drive to profit? Are they wrong when they say that employment abuse is close to pandemic? Who are we to believe? Tyson or Human Rights Watch?

And, to compound things, any time someone raises questions Tyson issues veiled threats about leaving for friendlier shores. It’s tantamount to corporate extortion. It’s “either stay in line or we’ll leave you high and dry.” This is a morally bankrupt position and deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms.

Caught in the middle of all this are the people of Emporia and Somalia. We’re caught in the crossfire of moral bankruptcy and neglect. It’s being left to us to pick up the pieces passed from institution to agency to employer. What should have been a chord of brotherhood has become a chain of abuse of power passed down to its lowest level, to you and me. It’s up to us to fix what has been broken.

I’d like to close with a word to my Somali brothers and sisters. The overwhelming majority of Emporians have great empathy for you. Most of us don’t know a great deal about your history, but we know enough to understand the long, painful journey that’s brought you here. We know that you came to Somalia as bondsmen and lived for generations at the mercy of slave-masters. We know that you’ve been left by the international community at the mercy of war-lords. We care. As I said earlier, it was a mission of mercy that originally bound us together. This country was willing to expend its blood and treasure, our sons and daughters, on your behalf. Those who fell had families and dreams of a better life, but they were willing to lay them down for you. For many of us the pain of seeing Americans dying on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 is still searing. That pain may be our most powerful bond, the pain of your history and the pain of our sacrifice. I think it may be the place where the olive branch of brotherhood could be extended here in Emporia.

One of the unfortunate lessons you’ve learned from our government officials, service agencies, and others in authority is that you’re entitled. You’re entitled to benefits. You’re entitled You’re entitled to respect and dignity. You’re entitled…You’re entitled…You’re entitled. That’s only half-true and half-truths can be exceedingly dangerous. That’s only half the great American equation. The other is that along with the benefits come responsibilities to our neighbors, our communities, and our nation. That sense of responsibility comes from a heart of gratitude. We’ve learned over time that a life focused on entitlement eventually leads to a life of serfdom. We recognize that to whom much is given much is also required. I believe it would be good if you would join us in that sense of responsibility and gratitude. We’re willing to extend the olive branch. The door of opportunity has been opened to you. I hope and pray that you will open it gratefully. I believe a good place for you to begin is for you to express your sense of gratefulness to the American people for the sacrifices they have made on your behalf. In all of the dialogue to this point I’ve never heard any sense of thanks from the Somali community expressed. It may be felt, but it hasn’t been expressed. This would be a good place for us to begin healing the pain of our shared history. I believe it would be altogether fitting for you to thank the American people, who have given their sons and daughters so that you and your families could shake the yoke of oppression. If we start there, I believe the chords of brotherhood can bind up the wounds that still prevail. If we don’t, misunderstanding and mistrust will continue to fester. If we start there I believe the sacrifices made by American families on your behalf will claim their true meaning.

The olive branch is being extended; you’re being invited to sit at the table of brotherhood. Please, in the name of God, accept the invitation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Reflections on Gratitude

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”
Matthew 6:25-27 (New Living Translation)

I woke up this morning in the after-glow of Tampochocho. The cares and burdens of modern life here in America haven’t yet been able to choke out the roots of those wonderful days.

At about 8:00 A.M. I left for Wichita to have the Veteran’s Administration review my current medications and to get some of them refilled. Being a veteran has some benefits for which I’m very grateful.

By 8:20 I was passing by mile marker 109, one of my favorite places in all the world. Any time I pass by that wondrous point I get a sense of my own smallness, which I believe is very healthy for the American soul. I gazed off to my east. There was a stiff breeze from the south, about 20 to 30 miles an hour, which caused the tallgrass to bend toward the north. The wind stopped momentarily and the tallgrass stood erect, like platoons of soldiers coming to attention on command. I took it as an opportunity to pull the car over, stop, and meditate on the beauty before me. There, a sense of peace and well-being overwhelmed me. I was so keenly aware of being under the great umbrella of grace, sharing the moment with the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, basking in the truth that as it is with every grain of sand, every hair on my head is numbered. It was a quiet, yet powerful moment.

At 8:40 I resumed my journey. For the next fifty miles or so the grace and peace of the day settled in. It was as though the gentle fire of everlasting life was beckoning me on. As one mile marker gave way to another, I saw faces of loved ones in my mind’s eye radiating back the love of God to me. There was my wife Nancy, my sons and daughter, my brother Bill, his wife Marilyn and their children. Thom, the young Vietnamese student who lives with Nancy and me, was there. My sister was there, as were my grand-children, Ashley, Josh, and Rebecca. So were Pastor Mike and his wife Jannie. Gerald Clock and Larry Hayes were there at mile marker 81, close to El Dorado Lake. Not far behind was the rest of the group Nancy and I had gone to Mexico with. And, so it went. With each face that passed gently past my view I sensed God’s love mirrored in each.

I arrived at the Robert J. Dole V.A. Hospital at 9:40. By 10:00 I was sitting in a waiting room, a newly anointed member of “Team Three.” A few minutes later the call came, in a quasi military fashion – “Dillon!”
I wasn’t sure whether or not to salute or stand at attention and wait for orders. “That’s me,” I replied.
“Right this way, Mister Dillon. I’m Lisa and the adventure begins here.”

Normally I feel a chill in a doctor’s office, but today it was different. The overpowering sense of everlasting life that had beckoned me down the turnpike seemed to be there in the room with me. I felt, as John Wesley famously said, “strangely warmed.”

The routine proceeded. My blood pressure was 125 over 70, or “right on the old bazoo,” as Lisa put it. “No fever.” “Ears clear.” She peered intently into my eyes. “They’re a bit red, looks like you either have allergies or you’ve been crying.”
“Little happy tears,” I confessed. “Just something that happened on the turnpike.”
“I see. Well, next I get to ask you some questions.”
“Any family history of diabetes?”
“Heart disease?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you smoke?”
“Gave the habit up forty years ago.”
“How about alcohol?”
“A couple of glasses of wine a year or a nice cold Heineken occasionally after I mow the lawn on a hot summer day.”
Then, she broke the routine, with what seemed an odd question. “You don’t suppose you could pray that we’d all get tomorrow afternoon off so we can get an early start on visiting relatives for Thanksgiving, do you?”
It took a moment for the question to register, then realizing it was a perfectly good question I said, “Absolutely…Sure thing…I’ve got an in with the Almighty.”
Lisa smiled. “I kinda’ had a feeling.”

By the time it was all said and done, I’d gotten a pneumonia shot, blood tests, and a complete thumping of the tires. I think I got a clean bill of health. Along the way I got to meet a lot of wonderful people. Their faces, like the familiar faces I’d seen along the turnpike, mirrored back the love of God I was feeling as I’d made my way south. There was Doctor Khanam, a young physician from Bangladesh and Bao Linh Duong, a pharmacist from Vietnam. In the pharmacy waiting room I got to sit with an old band of brothers. Most looked worn and weathered. Their pot bellies and the graying temples had become their latter day badges of honor. Some were in wheelchairs, some carried oxygen bottles. I felt a bit out of place. I don’t have any of the visible scars of service, only memories, most of which were healed years ago. I offered a few silent prayers for those I saw and spent another few moments expressing my gratitude for the good health I have.

On the trip home to Emporia the grace and peace once more overwhelmed me. This time it came in short waves, with the faces once more passing into view. The small happy tears flowed at mile marker 71…and mile marker 92…and then again at mile marker 109.

I’m back home now and the keyboard I’m typing on looks like it’s lit up by heavenly, neon lights. The warmth of everlasting life seems to be filling the room.

Come Thursday friends and family will be in for Thanksgiving dinner. I’m not sure how long the glow will last. I hope forever, but I don't really know. There are a few words from a Van Morrison tune that express how I feel right now – “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life was like this all the time.” Not knowing whether the fire will still be burning a couple of days from now, I feel compelled to express my thanks now. I’m grateful for faces…I’m grateful for the opportunity to lift small, silent prayers to heaven for bands of weary brothers and clinic nurses…I’m grateful for living under the great umbrella of grace and love… I’m grateful to be living in the presence of the sparrows that fall and the lilies of the field…I’m grateful to know that while I will one day wither, like that grass that withers and fades, that my days aren’t fully numbered yet…And, most of all, I’m grateful for light of everlasting life.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Poverty of el Norte

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see.”
- Revelation 3:15-18 (New Living Translation)

About a week and a half ago I embarked on a great journey along with twelve other members of Victory Fellowship Church in Emporia, Kansas. Our express purpose was to put a concrete second floor on a sister church in Tampochocho, Mexico, about a thirty hour drive south of where we all live. We went to minister and were ministered to.

I’m back home now and I’m spending some time dealing with sensory overload. We who participated witnessed and experienced so much it’s impossible to say what the high points were. Words just fail to express it all.

Was it being able to see a nineteen year old young man named Antonio, who had overcome so many obstacles in life, lead seventeen people to living faith in Jesus Christ as he and I wandered around the city square in Axtla on a beautiful Sunday afternoon? Was it seeing a woman who had been tortured by pain and unable to even stand rise by the power of the Spirit and walk, leap, and praise God? Was it seeing the desperate hunger and need filled as Jesus lovingly responded to the desperation and hunger? Was it seeing a little lame girl, Griselda, ask us to pray with her for a pair of shoes so that she could go to school and for a Bible so that she could read all about Jesus? Was it seeing the gratefulness etched on the faces of the Nahuatl (pronounced nah-what) men and women cupping their hands as they received the gift of a small bag of frijoles at the close of the meetings? Was it witnessing the power of the Holy Spirit as it surged in waves through the crowd? Was it seeing these shy, unassuming folks come alive as the wonderful mix of worship and salsa wafted through the night air? Was it in the harmony of men and women from different parts of the world working together to complete what seemed to be the impossible task that had been set before us?

There was so much that we witnessed and experienced. Words fail to express it all.

I’m struck by the powerful temptation to get back into the American routine of wealth and complacency. Why not just let CNN and Fox News and CSI and American Idol and IPODS and Tommy Hilfiger and fast food get us back into the rut of American normalcy? Why not just let Rush Limbaugh or the high powered politicians continue to do our thinking for us? Why not just make Tampochocho another inconvenient speed bump along the road of American wealth and reality? It’s very tempting to clutch desperately to my loyalty to wealth and convenience and forget what I witnessed in Tampochocho.

I’m tempted, but I know I can’t.

As we entered Mexico last Saturday I was particularly struck by the fact that in the midst of poverty there is also staggering wealth. There seems to be very little trickle down in the globalization that's sweeping south from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey. I was also struck by the truth that God always responds to hunger. What raw economics fails to do, Jesus does! He feeds the hungry, the poor, and the broken. He responds to the cries of the afflicted. I saw this with my own eyes. I witnessed it.

As we came back into the United States Friday afternoon a kind of reverse polarity swept over me. My natural eyes saw the enormous wealth, but my spiritual eyes saw the real poverty that rested on the deceit of earthly wealth and riches. The condos and the 5,000 square foot homes of America appeared more like shacks of Mexico in that light. I think it might be a way of seeing things in the proper light, in the light of a kingdom where up is down and the first shall be last.

On the long journey north I saw the sights one normally sees along America’s highways, the Burger Kings and Cracker Barrels, the truck stops, the sit-down restaurants and high-rise office buildings. They’re the familiar symbols of America’s power and wealth. Other less frequent symbols accompanied them. They’re called mega-churches. As we wound down the highway they became more and more frequent, with neon signs and electronic message boards beckoning the “needy.” Their parking lots stretched for what seemed to be miles and their spires extended far into the heavens. They were impressive sights indeed.

A day earlier I’d heard the strains of the old sixties ditty – “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, as long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin' on the dashboard of my car.” One after another the mega-churches came into my view and passed just as quickly as they’d come. With each passing I couldn’t help but wonder how many plastic Jesus’s were being sold inside the walls of some of these monuments to man’s faith in himself . Down to our south, in the minimalist view we had of Tampochocho, the Nahuatl were praying for the Holy Ghost to fall on them and praying for a pair of shoes or a Bible to read, and God was responding to the deep need and hunger. On the U.S. side of the border, inside too many of the mega-churches, too many people are praying for expensive trinkets, like the prophets of Baal cutting themselves in a futile attempt to get the fire to rain down from the heavens. Jesus is all too often being peddled as some sort of cosmic errand boy. So, it’s Jesus, satisfier of wandering desires, Jesus dispenser of electronic gadgets, SUV’s, and Cadillac Sevilles, and Jesus enabler of professional goals. In too many others, based on what folks are hearing there, you wouldn’t be able to recognize the real Jesus and the real Bread of Life because He’s being drowned out by the artificial stuff that’s being sold. It’s all too much like the bread you get in the grocery stores these days, full of artificial ingredients. You can take a piece of it and roll it into a little ball of junk. About the only thing it’s good for is for throwing into the water and feeding the carp. There, for one hour on Sunday, you get to hear tales of “the ground of all being” or “considered consequent eschatology,” messages too profound to understand delivered by men in frocked coats. Their booming baritones belie the emptiness of their messages.

By now some of you are probably gnashing your teeth. You’re thinking I’m just a judgmental old fool. “After all,” you say, behold our wealth and power, that’s our proof that everything is just fine here in el Norte. All I can say in response is that I’ve seen what I have seen. America is on the brink of judgment! A spiritual famine is about to descend like the locusts that swarmed over Egypt of old.

America is fast becoming a place where Ichabod is being written over many of its doors. Could it be that we’re fast approaching the place where those with eyes to see and ears to hear are saying, “Stay away from most of the religion of el Norte, it’s dead. Don’t eat the stale bread being offered and whatever you do, don’t drink the water.” Could it be that the time has come for missionaries who have been the beneficiaries of the work of the Spirit in Tampochocho and other poor villages to our south to stream north across the border to give drink to the thirsty and bread to the hungry in the vast American wasteland?

If so, what is our role in all of this?

I see this and I’m becoming convinced that Victory Fellowship and other little beacons of light are being called to be those small pockets of spiritual wealth and generosity in what is becoming a spiritual wasteland, a place where the prayers offered aren’t for the IPOD we just can't live without or the designer outfit to die for, but for the fire of the Spirit to fall and hide our nakedness, a place where our cry is not “Give me!” but “Here am I Lord, send me,” a place where repentance replaces demands for things that cannot soothe the hunger or satisfy the thirst.

That’s what Tampochocho meant to me. I’ve fumbled as best I could for the words to describe that meaning. I realize that they fail. I pray that the Spirit will give them life and meaning, that the fire will continue to burn and that we all will heed God’s call to become the people He desires us to be.