Recently I was in the audience listening to the American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout talk about her new book, “The Burgess Boys.” Her depiction of a small Maine town conflicted by a wave of Somali refugees and the thoughts of discomfort and even racism that emerge make for a riveting story full of modern threads of diversity and the need for brotherly love.
The evening’s sharing with this author made me run home and bury my nose in the book and made me think about how I view immigration, foreigners in our midst, and the temptation to make generalizations about those “not like us.”
In the headlines today are stories about acts of terrorism or hatred against others, whether in conflicts in Syria or in American cities such as Boston. I have paused to ask myself, How am I judging others? Do certain manners of dress or cultural expressions cause me to separate my fellow man from those “like me”?
The New Testament reminds us: “[N]ow are we the sons of God” (I John 3:2). It doesn’t say that some of us are the sons of God. It’s all inclusive! “The Message” translates that verse even more emphatically: “[W]e’re called children of God! That’s who we really are!”
As I’ve been reading Strout’s story of Somalis who are yearning for acceptance and reeling from hate crimes, I think back to a number of years ago when I was living in Kenya, near the Somali border, processing thousands of Somalis for resettlement in the United States.
These Somalis were refugees from war-torn Mogadishu, following the collapse of the government there. As I accepted the assignment to live and work in these refugee camps, I went with great trepidation and fear. I was concerned that I would be working for and with people who were against my country and who hated US servicemembers, and that I wouldn’t be able to carry out my work effectively.
How wrong my initial thoughts were. As I began to pray about my mission, and the presence of God, which surrounded all of us, I began to get a different view not only of the Somalis, but of all of us. The Bible says it for us: “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because he is, so are we in this world” (I John 4:17). I began to feel at peace in these camps housing 6,000 refugees.
My love for the work, for the people whom I was interviewing, and for the greater goal of finding hope and a bright future for these families gave me a sense of calm.
The elders of the community welcomed our team of workers. They built us shelters to work in to shield us from the hot Kenyan sun. The translators chosen were young Somali men filled with humor and compassion. I looked forward to going to work every morning, and the 14-hour days flew by. I learned to love these dear people.
They were not my enemies, or my country’s enemies. Regardless of their dress or religious practices, I felt that we were all linked together in God’s wonderful plan, forever brothers and sisters together. Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, tells us, “The scientific unity which exists between God and man must be wrought out in life-practice, and God’s will must be universally done” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 202). God’s plan was being worked out in those refugee camps, and all of us were being blessed.
I was humbled by the love that poured out to me as our work came to an end. Refugee families wanted me to share meals and tea with them in their tents. Handmade leather sandals were presented to me. And the elders, mothers, and young men became my friends, some keeping in touch with me years later as they settled in the US. The lessons for me were great: that the peace of divine Love can melt prejudice and fear and bring home God’s wonderful promise, Now are we the sons of God!