Sunday, July 5, 2015

When We Were Strangers

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
July 5, 2015

            Right after Phoebe finished fourth grade, we took a trip back East. We spent a day in New York City, and our goal for that day was to go to Ellis Island. As many times as I had visited NYC, I had never been to the historic site so I was looking forward to it. But the motivation for the trip was Phoebe.  Every fourth grader in our school district participated in a project on immigration. It was sponsored by the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah. A large part of the Vesterheim’s exhibits are about the Norwegian immigrant’s experience in America, and the museum wanted to encourage the ongoing interest in immigration and our immigration history in kids. Phoebe and her fellow fourth graders, and Zach after her, studied the history of immigration to our country. They created an immigrant identity for themselves. They kept a journal. They wrote about the kinds of items they would have brought with them. They created a final project which was then displayed at the museum. It was a big deal. Phoebe’s identity was a young girl from Ireland, and Zach was a Swedish immigrant named Oscar Frederick, the name of his great-grandfather. Needless to say, this project piqued our interest in Ellis Island.
            My gramma Trudy came through Ellis Island. Her story was a bit different than most. Her parents and two older sisters were all born in Sweden. But my Gramma was born in the United States after they immigrated. One more sister was born a few years after my grandmother. Her name was Hulda. Hulda got very sick, so my great-grandparents decided it would be better for her in Sweden. They made the journey back, but Hulda didn’t get better. She died when she was four. I imagine that Sweden and that memory became too painful for them, so they returned to the States. That’s when my gramma came through Ellis. This was during World War I, and the ship they sailed on was stopped and boarded by Germans; an event my grandmother remembered vividly to the day she died. But that’s a story for another day.
            At Ellis Island there is an archive area. For $5 you can spend 30 minutes on a computer searching for your ancestor. I decided to give it a try. I entered the potential time range and her name in the search engine, and within a matter of minutes, I found her! It was such an emotional moment for me. My gramma died three days after Phoebe was born, and seeing her name and then names of her family on the ship’s manifest made me feel connected to her in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I was proud, in that moment and now, that my family played a small role in the motto of our country: E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.
            But I do not want to talk about immigration and its history in our country in wholly rosy terms. Many of our brothers and sisters were brought here in slave ships and were traded like animals. We should never, ever forget that. To do so is to diminish our fellow human beings, ourselves and it denies our history which is dangerous. In spite of the words on the Statue of Liberty, immigrants were not welcomed here with open arms either. Each new wave of immigrants were often seen with suspicion, treated with disdain and scorn, and reminded that they were strangers. Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Jewish immigrants of every country, were all made to feel like unwelcome strangers in a strange land.
            What I found so beautiful and moving in this passage from Deuteronomy is not only God’s commandment to the Israelites to welcome the stranger in their midst, but to remember that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt. They were strangers. They were strangers and slaves and lived in a world and culture that was hostile to their presence to say the least. They were strangers. Remember that, God tells them, when they are confronted with strangers. You were once strangers as well.
            That is easy to forget though. Perhaps this forgetfulness is a part of our human nature. I’ve been a stranger in many different places throughout my life, but I have never been a stranger in my own country. I was born here. I grew up here. Although I’ve traveled to different countries, I have never lived anywhere but my own native land. But my ancestors did. For the majority of us, our ancestors were strangers here at some point in time. It doesn’t matter if they came across on the Mayflower or the Heilig Olav, the ship my grandmother sailed on. They were strangers. While I could easily fall back on our national sentiment of immigrants coming to look for freedom in the land of opportunity, honesty compels me to say that opportunity eluded many. It still does. Welcome for the stranger was not always offered. It still isn’t.
            But even if you have lived in Shawnee your whole life and have known the same people for that same amount of time, was there ever a time when you felt like a stranger? Was there ever a time when you needed someone to welcome you, to care for you, to see you not as a stranger but as a guest? As a friend? As family? I know that I have felt like a stranger many times, but I also know that I have been made welcome in ways I never expected. I have been brought into families as if I had been born into them. I have been greeted and treated with kindness because I was a stranger, not in spite of that fact. I have been a stranger, but I have also been welcomed.
            We were all strangers once. I hope that you have had similar experiences to mine; that you were made welcome, that you were shown hospitality and kindness. The Israelites were strangers in the land of Egypt. God reminds them of this, and bases his command to welcome the stranger on that reality. You were strangers, welcome strangers. You were shown hospitality, show others hospitality. If only we could all remember that. If only we could view the stranger in our midst, not as danger, but as friend. If only we could show real welcome to others, not out of required politeness but simply because we have walked in the shoes of a stranger. We were also strangers.
            Yet God calls us to welcome the stranger, just as we have been welcomed. Not only have others welcomed us, but God welcomed us. God welcomes us. We have never been strangers to God. We have never been aliens to God. God does not know strangers, only children. God welcomes us and welcomes us back, again and again and again. When we were strangers to others, God welcomed us, loved us, called us by name. God does not know strangers. Let all of God’s children, all of us, say, “Alleluia!” Amen.
My grandmother and other children on the ship from Sweden.

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