I am tired... triggered... stressed... outraged... terribly sad...
How do I compress 400 years of injustice into the few minutes of a sermon? How do I do that without lecturing, or accusing, or making people feel bad about themselves? I struggled this week with what to say about our UU principles and how they address this difficult time of racial upheaval we are in. Then it occurred to me that we already know what those principles say. We already know what we need to do to make a more perfect union. What you probably don’t know is what it is like to be a black man in this society. So this morning, I’m going to tell you what it’s like.
Did you know that I had my first life-threatening experience with a Southern Sheriff when I was 12 years old in 1968? My father gave me “the talk” a few minutes after I got home. How can you know that out of the countless times I’ve been stopped by police in my life at least 7 times were for completely non-legal reasons? Did you know I was stopped by two separate pairs of police in cruisers within 10 minutes on one night in Santa Barbara... and that both sets of officers tried to physically provoke me? I survived that experience because I was a college student, and I guess I wasn’t threatening enough, or maybe breaking my head might cause too much trouble. Did you know that in March of 2012 I almost did not make it back from a trip to Texas because I was detained by a Texas Trooper for almost an hour. He had me leave my car and interrogated me in his cruiser because, I am convinced, he was trying to decide if he would kill me that day. I survived that time because I disarmed him with patience and kindness and thoughtful listening and... well... I think I survived because he’d never met anybody like me.
Here’s a newsflash... the police are not friendly to black people. We avoid them like the plague. They are the modern overseers who will either kill us or send us to a penitentiary plantation. So, you either survive an encounter and go home or you’re unlucky enough to have a cop who will try to provoke you through humiliation or threat into an arrest. So they will tell you to say or do something. If you refuse, or are simply confused, they’ll claim you were resisting orders. If you argue, then you’re resisting arrest. If they get you in handcuffs, depending on where you live or the mood of the cop, there is a possibility you’ll never make it to the police station. Do you know how many black people have been killed by gunshots to the head while handcuffed and in police custody?
No... the police are not our friends. They sure as hell don’t protect and serve us! If they do... say we have a pleasant experience... we’re always surprised. If you don’t believe me, go find some other random black man and ask him to verify what I’m saying. If he’s honest, he’ll tell you of his experiences that most likely surpass my own.
So, let’s say you play the game and you play by the rules. You go to college and get a degree. You learn that to succeed you always, always wear a coat and tie. Hell, you sleep in your tie so you’re really, really comfortable in it. You know you have to be at least five times better at anything you do than your white counterparts.
In my case, I started a multimedia company in the Bay Area when I was 26 years old, in 1984. Eight years later I had secured a $10 million dollar contract for my company with a division of a large corporation. I employed 14 people working in shifts at one of their facilities and we were rocking. We developed two specialized innovative software products as partners with the division in support of a proposal for the US government. Then, when the division won the contract, with our help, they decided to screw us. They literally stole one of the software products, selling it to the government for years and not paying us for it. For the other software they lied to the government that we couldn’t deliver it because they discovered that as a minority-owned firm we didn’t have the expertise to actually do the work. So the government gave the division a waiver without investigating their claims, and the division sold inferior programs from other companies to the government instead.
After I discovered all this I confronted the senior management of the division for an explanation. Shortly after that I was called into a meeting with them... all middle-aged white men. When I asked them why they were deliberately cheating my company out of millions of dollars they said something to me I will never forget... something that has been etched into my DNA. The Vice-President of the division, told me they all agreed that "$10 million is too much money for somebody like you". He then told me I could sue them, but I'd never win and their army of lawyers would make my life a living hell. He was right. A few weeks later we were gone. They looted us. They did that through racial discrimination, fraud, theft, and plain old avarice. Of course, my company didn’t survive that blow. There are former employees even today, 30 years later, who’ve never gotten over that experience.
In business I learned not to demonstrate software I created because I was too much of a distraction in presentations. I learned to send my white engineers to do that in my place. I also learned not to show up to some clients because they preferred to interact with my white employees. If I was as assertive as a white man would be, I would be perceived as threatening. If I called people out for being unfair, I had a chip on my shoulder.
Oh, and don’t get me started on how much fun it is to look for an apartment. It got to be almost comical after I purchased one of those brick-sized cell phones. I’d call from the parking lot to arrange for an apartment. Two minutes later I’d walk into the office and somehow they wouldn’t have any more apartments. "No, we don’t take cats. No, you can’t pay your rent in cash three months in advance." I learned that the best thing to do was to have my white wife at the time, and her mother to do the renting. I was always away on a business trip. Later white people would be incensed with me that I did not state that I am black in newspaper want ads when they came to my door looking for a room to rent in my house! One time I did manage to rent a place... had a signed contract... but the owner called later to tell me that she rented it to a white couple because they would be neater.
And, let’s see... shopping is always a thrill. It goes under the general category of doing anything while black. Just fill in the blank while being black. I am always scrutinized wherever I go. Or there is often an assumption that I shouldn’t be where I am. Those questions aren’t always orally expressed, but they’re there, and that started very early in my life. "You can’t swim here ‘cause you’re a negro. You can’t play here ‘cause you’re black. Would you please get something to clean this up? What are you doing in this neighborhood? Who’s your friend? Where do you live? What’s your address? Are you maintenance? I thought we were going to meet the CEO of your company. I know you just saw someone else doing that, but you can’t write a check here. Are you in the orchestra? So, you’re actually going to get in that airplane and fly it?"
I know most of you haven’t heard these things from me in the past. You probably might not have heard most of these things before from your other black friends because we are socialized to keep these things from you. We are born to please you, appease you, to keep you psychologically comfortable and to keep your mind off of our differences so you don’t see those differences and abuse us, or pity us, or victimize us for them.
I know this is a shocking thing to say, but it is based in the hard science of Epigenetics. In Resmaa Menakem’s groundbreaking book called My Grandmother's Hands, he claims that trauma is compounding, and that trauma, such as that caused by racial or environmental factors, can be transmitted through DNA. Menakem's description of the role of DNA in transmitting trauma is astonishing. He wrote:
“Trauma can also be inherited genetically. Recent work in genetics has revealed that trauma can change the expression of the DNA in our cells, and these changes can be passed from parent to child. And it gets weirder. We now have evidence that memories connected to painful events also get passed down from parent to child – and to that child's child. What's more, these experiences appear to be held, passed on, and inherited in the body, not just in the thinking brain.”
White people are dangerous to us black men. Sometimes we don’t know what you’re going to do. Will you sick a dog on me? When I knock on your door for directions will you shoot me in the face? If I drive in your gated community will I be roadblocked in? If I am stopped by a white cop, will I survive the encounter? If I offend you in some way, or you perceive me as a threat, will you use your ace-in-the-hole-white-privilege to call down the wrath of white supremacist law enforcement on me? If you haven’t done that yet, you can take lessons from Amy Cooper. Actually, you don’t even have to do that in many states. If you’re armed, all you have to do is say you were afraid for you life, and voila, you can kill a nigger in self defense. You have to stand your ground... after all.
This insane, broken system of white supremacy coded into law, and assured by juries, is what allows 99% of all police involved in the killings of black people to not face any charges. It allows the lawyers of the killers of jogger Ahmed Arbery, after chasing him and striking him with their trucks... those lawyers claim that the father and son killed him in self defense because Ahmed fought them and tried to wrestle the shotgun from the son, Travis McMichael!
See, here’s what I’m getting at... Epigenetically and sociologically I, as a black man, have been programmed to survive by not causing you, a white person, any discomfort associated with the power of your privilege. This is the unspoken, unconscious, and potentially deadly dance that we do. The situation we’re in is my fault for not telling you about the constant pain and suffering I experience, on top the other crap we all have to deal with. The terrible thing is that when I don’t tell you these things I become complicit in my own oppression.
On the other hand, who wants to hear about terrible things their ancestors did? White people are not stupid. You know about the struggles black people have, and you don’t want to hear about it all the time. So you pretend that the civil rights laws are working just fine, that because we live in a post-civil rights age that most of the problems of injustice, racial inequities, and economic disparity have at least a proper structure for redress that black people are simply not availing themselves of. You marched with Martin Luther King, or you know someone who did. You’re not prejudiced. You did your part. Guess what. Whatever it was that you did, or now do, to be an ally of black folk – whatever contribution you once made – whatever hand you use to lift up your brother... it is obviously not enough. The terrible thing is that makes you feel bad, and that makes you complicit in my oppression.
And so here we are again. The 1920s saw race riots in this country. The 1960s saw race riots in this country. The 1990s saw race riots in this country. Now, in 2020 (right on schedule), we see race riots in this country. Why? Because we have never addressed our dark secret with anything other than legislation and some goodwill. We have not changed hearts and minds. People of color are locked into a death spiral with white America because... let’s be honest... White America is afraid of losing its identity and its historical privilege.
There is solid research to suggest that this fear runs extremely deep... that it runs deep enough to tear our nation apart. The research shows that much of the extreme hardening of political ideology is a function of racism. For example political scientists Steven Miller and Nicholas Davis of Texas A&M released a study in 2016 titled "White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy." Their study found a correlation between white American's intolerance, and support for authoritarian rule. In other words, when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy. Study after study confirms this in what social scientists now call the “Trump Effect” of rising authoritarianism.
So here we are. What do we do? How can we fix this? I first want to say that our national struggle with race has been witnessed by the entire world recently. Compassion for African Americans is expressed by people of nearly every nation. In our own country I have to say three good things have come out of the trauma of watching George Floyd’s execution.
The first good thing is the outrage against his murder and the fierce protests because of it that reveal an awful lot of white folks, young and old are there in the streets with us. In cities all across this nation that don’t have a lot of black people in them, especially those young white kids are marching with the same fire as their black brothers and sisters. I hope they get their sorry “I marched With King” parents off their couches and into the fight.
The second good thing is that black people are finally revealing how much we are hurting. We are not willing to accommodate white America’s fragility any longer. We will insist that you take responsibility for your actions and beliefs that perpetuate this unjust system of White Supremacy. The more uncomfortable you are, the more we will consider this a good sign of progress.
The last good thing is that Donald Trump doesn’t even pretend to hide his racism any more. He doesn’t even pretend to be a president. He has revealed his profound amorality and breath-taking narcissism in all it’s startling splendor. Americans have a stark choice to make: authoritarianism that preserves White Supremacy or a messy democracy that might finally live up to its stated principles.
As a people of all races and ethnicity we are tired... triggered... stressed... outraged... and terribly sad...
We can’t get through this without some radical changes. People of color need to be able to tell White people “Ouch” when we are hurt, and you White people have to believe us. We all must understand, on a DNA level, that we all suffer when one suffers. We are all diminished when one is diminished. An injustice for one is an injustice for all. Damn it people, this is only a dry run for the crushing reality of climate disruption to come. If we can’t figure out how to let go of the illusion of race and the illusion that one group of human beings are superior to others, we are doomed to extinction. And we will deserve it.
So here’s how we’re going to do this thing from now on. We are going to love the hell out of each other. Namaste
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
Given the news about the anti-lynching law passed recently, and the fact that some legislators voted against it, I thought it would be appropriate for me to post this excerpt from the service I led this past Sunday (2/23/20) at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists.
The BFUU devoted their service that morning to the music of liberation by African Americans. They were kind enough to feature selections from my musical "Harlem Voices" that was completed in August of 2019. Members of their choir (under the direction of Dr. Susan Mashiyama) and special guest musicians performed the selections. I am grateful to the many people at the BFUU congregation who so enthusiastically embraced my music. I am truly honored and humbled by their deep commitment to bringing "Harlem Voices" to life.
My latest work for Chamber Orchestra will be premiered by the Ukiah Symphony Orchestra on March 24, 2019 from 2:00-4:00 pm at the First Presbyterian Church of Ukiah, 514 W. Church Street, Ukiah CA 95482.
This 20-minute piece, entitled "Rose's Paintings", is a four movement work inspired by the paintings of Rose Xylona Ayala. You can go to my youtube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAc4H-TDlUq2u7o606T6KnQ?view_as=subscriber to listen to the pieces. Just look for videos titled "Comets" "Stairway to Heaven", "Room With a Door", and "Rose".
Please make plans to attend this fundraiser for the symphony. Other local composers to be featured are Jeff Ives, Joseph Nemeth, and Bill Taylor.
DONATION - $30
SENIORS - $25
Click the poster below for details
In a series of five sermons, of which this is the final part, I have examined many different aspects of the issue of immigration. In the first sermon, entitled The Stranger, I discussed what it is like to be “the other” in a society that may not feel comfortable with us as an outsider. The second sermon, The Immigrant, dealt with the history of immigration policies in the United States, and how many of them have been racially motivated. The third sermon, The Promised Land, described how the ideal of a Promised Land for immigrants is both a state of mind and a real, physical, place that needs to accommodate the needs of the immigrant. The fourth sermon, The Refugee, examines the personal needs of immigrants fleeing from persecution or danger.
This final sermon takes a more “spiritual” look at the underlying principle of all the previous sermons... that of justice. One of the definitions of the word justice is “the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action”. This is the context in which I wish discuss justice as it relates to immigration.
States have been granting protection to individuals and groups fleeing persecution for centuries. The modern body of laws dealing with refugees is largely the product of the second half of the twentieth century. Like international human rights law, modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II, as well as the refugee crises of the interwar years that preceded it. That era saw the greatest movement of human beings because warfare was no longer confined to battlefields. In a world that lately seems to want to punish refugees, individuals and organizations advocating for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees with justice and compassion, are being hindered. In light of these stressors, let’s take a look at what justice is...
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a person who did something wrong would immediately suffer the consequences of their actions?
What if a person who started forest fires gets his house burned down?
What if a person who hits someone with a car and then drives away also gets run
What if you get sick if you cause someone else to get sick?
I’m certain you can, like me, think of a million other things to add to a list of “What ifs”.
The concept of Justice is so important to Unitarian Universalists that, unlike any other, such as peace or liberty, it appears twice in our principles. In the second principle it is included as: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. In the sixth principle, it is included as: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. This is not just a semantic fluke. It demonstrates the subtle, yet awesome power of the word. Justice is required for “human” (or personal relations), as well as on the level of the “world” community.
According to most contemporary theories of justice, justice is overwhelmingly important: John Rawls claims “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” Justice can be thought of as distinct from and more fundamental than benevolence, charity, mercy, generosity, or compassion.
Studies at UCLA in 2008 have indicated that reactions to fairness are “wired” into the brain and that, “Fairness is activating the same part of the brain that responds to food in rats... This is consistent with the notion that being treated fairly satisfies a basic need”. Research conducted in 2003 at Emory University, Georgia, involving Monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that “inequity aversion may not be uniquely human”, indicating that ideas of fairness and justice may be instinctual in nature.
Even without scientific proof that we possess an “instinctive” understanding of justice, we all know this. We human beings understand that fairness, codified as the “Golden Rule”, lies at the heart of justice. The formula is a simple one of reciprocity: I will give another the benefit of the doubt as I would expect the same, I will not gossip as I would not like to be the subject of gossip, I will tell the truth as I would like to be told it, I will treat others with respect as I would like to be treated with respect, and I will not judge others because I do not like to be judged.
As I said earlier, a fascinating aspect of the concept of justice is that it applies in equal importance on both the personal and global levels. Indeed, it is, as Rawls says, “the first virtue of social institutions”, and it is essential to any relationship. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Luther was able to capture both the powerful personal and transcendent quality of justice in three brilliant sentences. In essence, he said, justice is always threatened by injustice, every person is responsible for ensuring that justice is done on every level because we are all affected by injustice.
Have you ever thought about how injustice weighs down even the most hardy individual, organization, or even civilizations? Even a perceived injustice can cause resentment, hurt feelings, anger, withdrawal, and pain. Disputes arise because of perceived, or real slights. The fairness genes we are wired with kick in and we stop thinking. Instead, we emote, we react, and we rush to judgment. We use terms like “justice cries out” or that someone “cries out for justice”.
I actually have friends who are bitter about the Armenian Holocaust that occurred before and after World War I at the hands of the Turks. I have other friends who are angry about how Palestinians were pushed out of their homeland by Jews. I’ve known people whose parents are Jewish holocaust survivors and the children carry the scars of injustice with them as if they were directly involved. I have family members who are still wounded by segregation and the discrimination they experienced during the Jim Crow era of injustices here in the United States, and I sometimes hear others wonder if they will ever see the forty acres and a mule they say African Americans were promised.
Justice is such a powerful force in our lives that its personification has been encoded into our psyches since ancient times. Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice, is an allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems. She is known to us as Lady Justice. Justitia is most often depicted with a set of scales typically suspended from her right hand, upon which she measures the strengths of a case’s support and opposition. She is also often seen carrying a double-edged sword in her left hand, symbolizing the power of Reason and Justice, which may be wielded either for or against any party.
Did you know that it wasn’t until the 15th century that Lady Justice has been depicted wearing a blindfold. The blindfold represents objectivity, in that justice is or should be meted out objectively, without fear or favor, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness; blind justice and impartiality. The earliest Roman coins depicted Justitia with the sword in one hand and the scale in the other, but with her eyes uncovered.
Because we emote, and react, and rush to judgment we have created an edifice upon which to hang the balances of justice. We need something that allows us to be more rational, and look more objectively on both sides of an issue. We need a buffer to the passions that may consume us. We need some time to reconsider our feelings. That buffer is called the law. Laws are the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision. Because we are talking about the spiritual aspects of justice, we need to dig a little deeper than just what the law is and come to an understanding of how it relates to our deeply ingrained need for justice.
How do we stop injustice and promote justice at the level of the world community? We UUs are deeply committed to the cause of justice. I invite you to do a search on the internet and visit the many UU-sponsored organizations that do work in the cause of justice. Probably the most visible such organization is the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). It is a nonsectarian organization that advances human rights and social justice in the United States and around the world. According to their website, through a combination of advocacy, education, and partnerships with grassroots organizations, they promote economic rights, advance environmental justice, defend civil liberties, and preserve the rights of people in times of humanitarian crisis.
Working for justice on the world level can literally be exhausting. When I am so overwhelmed at injustice at that level, I draw inspiration from people like Marla Rukiza, a local girl from Lakeport, California. Marla was an activist-turned-aid worker. She believed that combatant governments had a legal and moral responsibility to compensate the families of civilians killed or injured in military conflicts. According to the Rolling Stone magazine,
“Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past ten or twenty years. Though a novice in life — she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience — her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq.”
If you doubt your voice cannot have an effect on the world, think of our Marla.
How do we promote justice in our personal lives? On a personal level, I like to say that I will not do or say anything unless it is kind, fair, or just. What I say or do must meet at least two of these criteria before I act. That is simple advice I gleaned from a Sikh master many years ago has been an invaluable guide for me over the years.
The answer to the question of personal justice is rather simple... we listen to each other, we respect each other, we should be mindful that there are always two sides to a story, we follow the rules designed to help us live in harmony and mutual respect, we apologize, and we forgive. Justice resides in the hearts and minds of individuals. Every human being has a different idea of justice because we are all different people with our own, unique view of the world. Yet, our “fairness gene”, if you will, gives us remarkable access to a vast reservoir of the stored wisdom of our species. If we would only pause for a few moments to seek that wisdom when confronted by injustice, perceived or real, the world would be a much better place. And justice will prevail.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
His name was Mawlânâ Jalâluddîn Muhammad Balkhî-ye Rûmî. He was born September 30, 1207 in present day Afghanistan. His name has been shortened to Rumi, and he is one of the greatest and most popular poets in the world. The poems of this Persian poet born more than eight centuries ago are beloved by millions of readers in around the world. His writings been compared to Shakespeare for his creativity breadth and Saint Francis in its spiritual wisdom.
Rumi descended from a long line of Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystics, including his father, Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, who was known as “Sultan of the Scholars.” When Rumi was still a young man, his father led their family more than 2,000 miles west to avoid the invasion of Genghis Khan’s armies. As a young Persian refugee, Rumi had gone through the traumatic and painful process of adaptation and assimilation - a process which is also so familiar to any refugee and immigrant of our days. He had to adapt to his new hometown, Konya in South central Turkey where he lived the rest of his life, and is currently buried.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. More than half of all refugees worldwide come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.” Borders cannot, and should not, be completely sealed: Many asylum-seekers are fleeing death, and the obligation to save them is legal as well as moral.
Would the man who would arguably become one of the greatest poets to grace our planet be admitted to the United States as a 12 year old refugee under our policy of admitting only the "best and brightest"? Would his father, an Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystic been able to bring his family here? Well, let’s see how they might fare in our present political climate.
Radical declines in the admission of refugees have been instituted, even after a Trump administration study by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost. Another report from the New American Economy entitled, From Struggle to Resilience: The Economic Impact of Refugees in America, shows that Refugees have an entrepreneurship rate that outshines even that of other immigrants. The United States was home to more than 180,000 refugee entrepreneurs in 2015. That meant that 13 percent of refugees were entrepreneurs in 2015, compared to just 11.5 percent of non-refugee immigrants and 9.0 percent of the U.S.-born population. The businesses of refugees also generated $4.6 billion in business income that year. Other significant facts are found: 1) while refugees receive initial assistance upon arriving in the United States, they see particularly sharp income increases in subsequent years, 2) refugees make particularly meaningful contributions to the economies of several key states, and 3) in an era when the country faces unprecedented demographic challenges, refugees are uniquely positioned to help because most are of working age.
According to the CATO institute, in an April 23, 2018 article, “During the campaign, Trump referred to Muslim refugees as a ‘Trojan horse’ that could bring down the United States from the inside. Not surprisingly then, Muslim refugees have seen their numbers slashed most dramatically. From October 2015 through December 2016, monthly arrivals of Muslim refugees averaged 3,076. During the first six months of FY 2018, they have fallen to just 275 per month - 91 percent below their rate in FY 2016.”
The U.S. Supreme Court concluded arguments regarding the Trump administration’s third attempt at a travel ban against visitors from Muslim countries on April 25, 2018. At this point, it is not certain how the court will decide, but key justices seem skeptical of challenges to the ban, a result of the post-election shift in the makeup of the court towards the right. A ruling is expected in June, 2018, but to members of one of the United States’ least popular religious minorities, this will be more than a ruling on the president’s authority. It will be a culturally pivotal moment; a statement of the nation’s values.
The effect of the Trump campaign against Muslims has been that many Americans view Muslims far less positively than they view members of most other major religious groups. In a recent topic question on Debate.org the question, “Should the U.S. ban Muslims from entering the country?”, was posed. A not atypical answer was the following: “They do not belong in this great beautiful country of God. They will only steal our jobs, rape our women, and kidnap our children. They belong in the dirt, no, they are dirt. They are good for nothing brown pieces of shit and should not be tolerated if they are caught in the country they should be shot on site.”
There are profound spiritual dimensions to the way refugees should be treated. For those who are Christian among us, I offer these words from the Bible to reflect upon:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:25-36)
These admonitions from the Bible are more than mere suggestions. They lie at the heart of Abrahamic religions; they are essential definitions of humanity. To treat a foreigner, especially a refugee, as “your native-born” is often a challenge. There are sometimes barriers of language and customs to overcome. Cultural differences may seem insurmountable. The “Golden Rule” loses its luster.
I have had direct, personal experience with such a challenge. In the mid-1990s I worked as an instructor teaching the Lingo programming language night class at a large private technical school in Silicon Valley. I once had a student whose last name was Tran in my class. He was a middle-aged Vietnamese man who could not speak English very well. Tran slowed the class down, so I had my TA work more directly with him than anyone else. The TA told me that she simply could not seem to communicate well with Tran or answer his more probing questions about Lingo. I must admit to being annoyed with Tran myself. I had a difficult time understanding him. Instructors in other classes complained about Tran as well.
I then remembered what it was like to live in Germany, not knowing the language well and having to work in a highly technical field with people who were not very patient with me. I had my TA work with other students and I began to spend much more time with Tran. I was determined to help him succeed. My extra attention was rewarded. Once he understood the principles and syntax of Lingo, he began to write truly elegant code. His mathematical constructs were flawless and creative. He became my best student. I came to find out that Tran was formerly a Major General in the South Vietnamese Army in command of a tank brigade. He was one of the lucky few high ranking ARNV to escape from Vietnam and come to the United States as a refugee. On the last evening of class he came with his wife and several of his younger children. He introduced his family and thanked me for helping him through the course.
I certainly hope Tran and his family were able to stay in the United States. We are all enriched by his presence. I am pained by the present attitude of our nation towards non-European refugees. The pain comes not only from a spiritual perspective, but from a basic human level.
How can we know the potential of any refugee to enrich our own culture? What metrics can be used to determine the nationality of a soul? Rumi answers these questions in this poem attributed to him:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.
Not any religion or cultural system.
I am not from the east or the west, not out of the ocean or
From the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all.
I do not exist, I am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any Origin story.
My place is the placeless, a trace of the traceless, neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and
That one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner only that breath breathing human being.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!