Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections on Refugees and a Farewell!

by Kaitlyn

Well, it’s my second to last week as a volunteer resident at the Worker, and I’m finally writing! My name is Kaitlyn and I will be a senior in college, majoring in Theology and International Peace Studies. Over Christmas break this past year, while exploring and discerning what the summer might hold for me, I stumbled upon two wonderful opportunities in Columbus: Community Refugee Immigration Services (CRIS) -a non-profit Refugee Resettlement Organization - and The Columbus Catholic Worker at St. James the Less.

During fall semester I had volunteered at the South Bend Catholic Worker with their Weather Amnesty program, spending the night with 10 homeless men once a month when the temperature was below freezing. It is an incredible community, focused on hospitality to the homeless, and I was touched so deeply every time I volunteered. When two people from home mentioned that they had heard of a Catholic Worker recently begun in Columbus, my heart leaped! I found this blog the night before I returned to school in January, stopped by to help sort clothes for the free store the next day, and emailed Frank shortly after with the daring proposal of living here this summer. He was enthused! I was welcome :) In the Spring I interviewed for an unpaid 8-week internship with CRIS, and embarked on both adventures on the 1st of June.

The past month and a half has surely been blessed, filled to the brim with lively, eclectic souls who have inspired and touched me in many ways. Growing up in the suburbs, I had never spent time in the part of Columbus where the Worker is located, surrounded by many immigrants, refugees, and low-income families. It has been eye-opening to be immersed in such cultural and social diversity, to see so much poverty and need in my home town, and to expend my energies doing such meaningful work.

The refugees I have worked with this summer at CRIS have truly been Christ in disguise. I have felt so intimate with Christ serving some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community. On days when I spend a lot of time doing paperwork, or behind a computer screen, simple moments of client contact give me so much joy and life. Some of my favorite moments…

A Muslim man from Sudan taking our Job Readiness class gently explaining the 5 pillars of Islam to me, and then pouring me a huge glass of juice, emptying the carton he had brought for his breakfast...

A Somali woman inviting me into her home, serving me a hot cup of milky tea, and spending 30 minutes communicating with hand gestures and teaching me words in her language...

Spending an afternoon with a Bhutanese family with 3 kids, enrolling them in school, and then taking them to the library to sign up for summer reading; the older boy singing Nepali pop songs with abandon in the car, and little 5 year old Sriza holding my hand and talking my ear off, though I didn’t understand a single word…

The refugee families often arrive directly from refugee camps where they have spent 2, 5, or even 17 years waiting for their case to be processed. They often arrive with nothing: no English, no home, no money, no job. We pick them up from the airport, find them an apartment… and my job is to prepare the apartment by getting them furniture, food, and a welcome basket. We also enroll the kids in school, teach a Job Readiness course and ESL, apply for social security and welfare benefits for the families, and help in any other ways we can.

Though they have little to nothing, the refugees have shown me more hospitality and generosity than I have ever encountered before. One day, my co-intern and I were on our way out of an apartment complex where many refugees live. An Eritrean woman wrapped in colorful cloth, with a gentle face worn by the sun and etched with wisdom and life, came outside and began speaking to my co-intern and I in Italian! She spent 2 years in Italy before coming to the US. My co-intern attempted to communicate in Spanish. Next thing I knew, she was inside the apartment, and I was being ushered in too, by the woman’s 28 year old daughter, Marta, who speaks some English. They placed a piping hot plate of Injera (a crepe-like flat bread) and a red, tomato-ey dipping sauce in front of us, then offered us coffee. The mother brewed Eritrean coffee in a beautiful Eritrean metal flask on the stove, plugged it with a piece of sponge to filter it, and, after scooping 2 giant spoonfuls of sugar into our little cups, poured us the most delicious coffee I’ve had since traveling in Italy! We drank it on a beautiful little wooden table, carved by Marta’s brother back in Eritrea. Before we left, we helped Marta understand and explain to her elderly neighbor the instructions for a hair-dying kit.

Marta and her mother have little possessions, struggle to get by, and yet shared so many beautiful gifts with us: the gift of their culture, their food, their home, their kindness. I couldn’t believe their hospitality, given to two complete strangers! It reminds me of Abraham in the 1st reading from this weekend, who runs out to greet the three visitors and bows to the ground in respect to invite them to stay and wash and eat. I wonder, “What if we all opened our doors to each other? What if we shared our food, our possessions, our homes, our cultures, with open hands, without fear? What if I approached each new person I met, each stranger that came to my door, with love and warmth in my eyes, as if I were greeting Christ himself?” Perhaps we would see more clearly that we belong to each other, that we are one human family… and that there is enough to go around.

My time at the Worker has also taught me about the gift of hospitality. It is amazing to live in a place where the door is always open; where people are always coming in and out, to drop off clothes or fresh vegetables, to volunteer, to hold a meeting, to receive food or clothing, to learn English or receive legal services…

I’ve been reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, throughout the summer. Dorothy says something profound about Peter Maurin that I have been meditating on: "He made you feel that you and all men had great and generous hearts with which to love God. If you once recognized this fact in yourself you would expect to find it in others... It was seeing Christ in others, loving the Christ you saw in others. Greater than this, it was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him. Blessed is he that believes without seeing."

The wonderful, unique people who form the foundation of this Catholic Worker community live believing in the Christ in others. Whoever happens to come to the door, whether a bubbly young college student, a family of Congolese refugees, or a woman suffering from abuse who lives down the street, I have seen them greeted with warmth and energy, given whatever food or drink or service they need, treated with a dignity and love they may not receive elsewhere. I am quietly challenged every day by my fellow Catholic workers to have faith in Christ in others, no matter how hidden He is, no matter how intimidating or different their outer appearance might be. If I approach each person with love and peace, rather than fear or defensiveness… that might bring out Christ in them, bring out their goodness that is hidden behind a tough exterior!

The days and weeks have flown by so quickly – I can hardly believe this brief and beautiful 2-month visitation will soon be over! Each day has gifted me with a new neighbor, a new friend, a deeper understanding of the experience of the poor and vulnerable, and a stronger sense of my identity and responsibility as a member of both a local and global community. Not to mention a stomach full of Somali bread or fresh-baked beets from the community garden! I am so incredibly grateful to the Catholic Worker community for welcoming me, teaching me, being patient with my busy schedule, loving me, and inviting me to offer my gifts to the community. Your openness and encouragement has really helped me to thrive and to make home these past few months.

As I reflect upon the joy of this journey, yet feel the winds of change coming, I am reminded of this quote, which I will leave you with:

Ours is the pain of constantly pitching our tent and folding it up again, of befriending strangers and bidding them goodbye, of loving the world but never being truly satisfied with it, of pouring our heart and soul into a project others have begun and still others will finish. If we would not be torn by the tension of this truth, we must learn to live provisionally- to measure the road well. We need to make the most of the occasions when we can gather by the roadside to break bread and compare directions. Joy must be discovered in the going as we never really arrive, not even in a lifetime.

-Kristine Malins, medical missionary

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Immigration Rally: An Ecumenical Moment

We all have our causes. We have to pick what we are involved in and leave the rest. There is simply no time in the day to do it all. We'll burn ourselves out and be ineffective if we continually move from issue to issue.

Yet, there comes a time when momentum is gathering and the timing is right to leave our picks and shovels in the fields and rush to join with our neighbors in solidarity on a single issue. The time is now and the cause is immigration reform.

Last night was a proud moment, as leaders from many churches and faith-based groups gathered together to call for a reform of our immigration system.

It is time to take a stand so that Ohio does not fall victim to the mentality that is making Arizona start to resemble a police state--with citizens needing to carry their papers as if it were the Soviet Union. Folks live in fear of vigilante groups intimidating the population, even terrorizing people who are here legally.

As people of faith, we have heard the cry of the poor. Our immigrant sisters and brothers have been abused and exploited by the immigration policy of the United States:

* Our businesses take advantage of immigrants for cheap labor and by putting them in hazardous work conditions. The threat of deportation prevents people from complaining.

* Our immigration officers split up families, often leaving children behind to fall prey to gangs, drugs and violence.

* Our current immigration policy is unfair and unfairly enforced. It is easy to become a citizen if you are a professional basketball player, but odds go down considerably if you are a poor farmer. Also, few in the USA seem worried about undocumented immigrants from places such as Canada or Ireland. The real concern seems to be Latinos and others with different skin color.

* Our own so-called "fair trade" policies have impoverished much of the developing world, virtually forcing people to leave their homes for a shot at a better future. For an example, look at corn subsidies which pay our US farmers so that they can sell their corn below market rates--they have almost destroyed the local agriculture markets in Mexico, impoverishing people who once made a good living as farmers.

* US-trained military have terrorized the populations of Latin America for decades in a systematic policy of war, torture and rape, leaving many risking all they have to flee to the north. These military actions interrupt development and put down movements of people struggling for better standards of living.

It has long since been time to reform our immigration policy.

* * *

This is a humanitarian issue. What would compel someone to leave their family and their homeland behind, to risk life and death to cross the border illegally, to work for less than minimum wage in hazardous conditions in the USA? The only logical answer: The alternative is worse.

Most red-blooded Americans would cross hell and high water to do the same for their own families. This is a family issue.

What does this mean? These people should be classified as refugees fleeing for their very lives and need to be harbored and given asylum as such. At the very least, if people come to America to work there should be a way to naturalize into this country and remain here if they have built a life here. Families should be kept together.

* * *

I have to admit I’m a sucker for sentimental moments. One of the reasons I love being in peace & justice movements is that there is no better place to see people of different faiths working together, genuinely respecting each other and respecting the differences they bring to the table. Yesterday, I saw some of my heroes from different faiths standing—literally—hand in hand on the stage in front of us.

People brought their unique perspectives and flavor, such as the Jewish rabbi who sounded the ram’s horn which reverberated both throughout downtown and deep within our bones. The ministers, priests and pastors showed—either directly or indirectly—their reverence for each other and they fact that they have learned from each other.

People say there are moments when you get a taste of heaven, and for me this was one—when the whole body of God’s people stand as one. Nobody was trying to make a name for themselves or steal the spotlight or refuse to give ground—yet they all stole the spotlight and they all gained ground!

This is how it is supposed to work. When differences are things that enhance rather than detract, when humility does not make us smaller but rather makes us bigger. This is a group of people practicing what they preach, reminding us of who we are as a people.

* * *

The above picture will serve as a reminder to always carry a camera to have a chance for a do-over! Still, everyone else looks great, so in all humility here is our little Catholic Worker group and some friends: Kaitlyn, Frank, Nancy (from Justice for Immigrants), Erin K and Erin W.

* * *

Of particular interest were the counter-demonstrators. They were staged along High Street, hoping to distract our rally with the honking of detractors. I didn't hear much honking, but there was some.

Some of their signs read:

What part of illegal don't you understand?

Slavery was once legal, too. In fact, folks who harbored escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad could have faced the harshest of penalties. Now, we call them heroes.

Another sign simply read: John 10:1

Woe to anyone who tries to reduce the Gospel of John, which its sophisticated interplay of themes and symbols, into a one-liner. But I just had to look it up. It reads:

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.

It is quite a stretch to think that the "sheepfold" here implies citizenship in a political state such as the USA, but I'll play along for a moment. Let's read a little more of the passage. Here's the very next verse:

But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

So wait a minute... those who do not enter through the gate are like undocumented people in the USA, but whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd. So does that mean the rest of us citizens of the USA are shepherds? What does THAT means? Let's look at more verses:

Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them. [seems to be a common problem]. So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

In other words, the gate is not the border crossing station, as the detractors seem to be implying--Jesus is the gate. All who enter through him are saved. And Jesus seems to be okay with people coming and going to find pasture, if they need to feed themselves. The end result is that through Jesus, they are to have life and have it more abundantly.

And that's all we are doing with immigration reform: Through Jesus, we want people to have abundant life. The border crossing station is not the same thing as the gate of Jesus, so we need to make the border crossing station resemble Jesus a little more so that people can come and go to find greener pastures and to have life more abundantly.

* * *

The grim reality is that the USA accounts for only 5% of the world's population. We consume nearly 50% of the earth's resources. What else can we do but share?

A great reference is the US bishops website:

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Young Congolese Family

We have been hanging out with a young family from the Democratic Republic of Congo lately--a mother and three children. They recently arrived to America, and we have been helping out with a few things—they got clothes from our free store, produce from our garden, and they just came last night for ESL. The two young men got interested in the soccer playing outside, and Vielka went out there and strongly told the Latino guys to welcome them--which they did without any hesitation.

Kaitlyn and Joan have been communicating with one of the sons in French, and he then translates to his mother and siblings who don’t know any European languages. There is a refugee placement agency helping them, but we are trying to be an extra support as a family like this needs so much. Kaitlyn is tracking down further ways to help out.

Minerals are right at the center of much of the fighting all over Africa. Diamonds are a major culprit, but in the case of the Congo it is rare minerals used in cell phones, laptops and digital camera. Some of the fighting is just for sheer profit--legal or otherwise--and other times it is to fund military actions of one kind of another.

I saw an excellent documentary on the History Channel recently called Blood Diamonds: Beyond the Bloodshed (click the link to watch it). I was horrified to learn what has been going on in Sierra Leone and Angola—militia groups terrorize the countryside using gruesome methods of torture, amputations and rape intentionally to displace the population away from diamond mining deposits. They put many people into slave labor mining camps to finance their military actions.

There is a movement now to market “conflict free diamonds.” This is to give some assurance that the diamonds you buy do not come with this kind of history. I applaud the efforts but right now the “conflict free” tag is not very reliable since there is not yet sufficient third party monitoring, but it is a step in the right direction.

What has been going on in the Congo is not much different. Due to widespread sexual violence, eastern Congo right now is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman or a girl. Disputes over mineral rights have fueled a war in which over 5 million people have died and 1 million have been displaced.

Coincidentally, I’ve been gettin action alerts about the Congo from Catholic Relief Services. Right now, there is major legislation pending to address this very issue. The bishops in the Congo themselves and other human rights groups recommend more accountability—to bring a reliable “conflict free” label to all minerals through the entire supply chain.

I got a text message this morning from CRS saying that the provision below to include “Congo conflict minerals and other transparency provisions” got approved by the US Congress and will make its way to the desk of the President soon!

I would recommend keeping a watch on this issue. This bill does not solve all problems, but it takes a giant leap forward to begin an accountability process.

We have heard many gruesome stories about genocide in Africa in recent years: Rwanda. Darfur. Zimbabwe. Sierra Leone. The list goes on and on. It may be hard to believe that a situation could ever be any worse than those, but reports are showing that the war in the Congo right now is considered the deadliest since World War II.

One way to make a difference is to urge companies that make electronics to use conflict-free materials. Click this link to learn how.

In the meantime, one young family from the Congo is trying to resettle in Columbus, OH.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Community Garden Dividends

When we first moved to this neighborhood, all we heard was the bad news: The plethora of break-in's, the danger of walking around at night, the wandering kids up to no good, the "unknown" element of the immigrants, you name it. Lock your doors, lock your windows, don't be out at night. This is what life is like here. Try as I might, I couldn't shake that image because that was just about all I heard.

Those negative elements--both real and exaggerated--were the image and voice of the neighborhood.

Something like a community garden does not remove all those elements, at least, not at first. But it shifts the focus. The amazing and wonderful people who participate in the community garden were already there in the neighborhood. The neighborhood just needed a forum through which the positive elements of the community could be nurtured and given a place to shine.

When I walk around the neighborhood now, here is what I see: The house of our friends from the Vineyard and the neighborhood kids nearby they watch over . . . There are some St. James the Less parishioners who have been leaders in the effort . . . there's the woman who is a canning expert walking her dog . . . and others who have been gardening mentors always willing to share advice and a helping hand. I see friends and many safe havens.

In times of fear, people often choose to close themselves off. Instead of sharing our gifts widely with the world, we can choose to keep them contained behind closed doors or only share them at some far off site on weekends. This is very understandable--why do something if it is going to be trashed, unappreciated or if you are threatened in some way? However, this creates a domino effect as the negative elements in a neighborhood start to dominate the landscape more and more.

What we learned through the community garden is that there are many wonderful people with amazing talents right here, right now. People garden for fun. They garden to give produce to the needy. They garden to get to know their neighbors. It is time for them to set the tone for the neighborhood. Their talents and enthusiasm, caring and love, need to be placed on a hill where all can see. We're writing a new story about this neighbood, and what a tale to tell!

One of the main problems in modern American culture is the isolation. It seems like the bumper sticker of America is that Nobody knows their neighbors. But that's only part of the story: Street gangs know their neighbors and so do drug users. Kids know their neighbors, but kids being kids need parental guidance to turn that into a positive association. People have many wonderful things to share, not only their talents but also the gift of themselves. They just need a forum through which to do that.

Some neighborhoods have been trying to fight isolation. They may have a yearly barbecue or some other activity. However, there's nothing quite like a neighborhood project that we can all get involved with: Let's build something, let's grow something, let's help somebody.

Perhaps this is what Peter Maurin meant when he envisioned to "create a society where it is easier to be good." The garden is built by the community. It was simply the infrastructure that was needed. Someone needed to get the ball rolling and do the logistics to open the possibility. The neighborhood transforms itself through the grace of God, the best we can do is loosen up the log jams that have accumulated.

A community garden reaps so many other benefits: We grow food for the needy. We share ideas about gardening and growing healthy, organic produce. We're all eating more fresh produce than before, and more cheaply, too. Many friendships have developed. When people talk about this neighborhood, they now talk about the garden. What about all the negative elements? Those are still there, but maybe, just maybe, they are losing their hold on the spotlight and may perhaps even lose some of their bite, too. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we can celebrate the bounty that is the community garden: The friendships, the enthusiasm, the gift to the poor, the building up of the neighborhood, the showcase of the skills and talents of neighbors, a positive impact on the enviornment, and a rather beautiful little garden right here, right now.