Since 2011, more than 200,000 Syrians have died in the civil war. Close to 12 million — one-half of the Syrian population of 23 million — have been forced from their homes. More than four million have fled.
What began as an act of civil protest has continued to expand to civil war, genocide, and mass exodus. It began as protest in response to the arrest and torture of teenagers who wrote revolutionary slogans on a school wall.
Globally, accordinng to UNHCR, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Across the world, there are an estimated 60 million people displaced from their homes because of war and persecution — the highest displacement on record.
And those who leave violence in their homelands too often become targets for robbery, boat smuggling, human trafficking, and mistreatment from border guards.
As Jesus and his disciples were traveling through one town after another, his disciples debated whom among them would be the greatest and have the most important position when Jesus came into his kingdom.
“‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (Mark 9: 35b-37)
Welcome is not merely receiving others. It is receiving others with gladness or delight, especially in response to a need.
The reception extended to Syrian and other refugees has been varied. Years of violence in Iraq and Syria have “stretched the capacities of neighboring countries to accommodate the displaced,” according to the New York Times.
Hungary in particular has been slow to allow Syrian migrants to pass through, as the nation is in the process of erecting a 110-mile long wall along its Serbian border to keep migrants out (cost: $35 million).
As the European Union seeks to respond with compassion, there is a proposal of mandatory quotas for each of the 28 EU member-nations to help relocate refugees. Perhaps itself having learned a great deal about the long-term consequences of civil war, persecution, and genocide from World War II, Germany has extended the greatest welcome so far. As a result, by the end of this year, an estimated 800,000 refugees will likely request asylum in Germany.
How has the United States responded to this global crisis? Thus far, the Obama administration has committed to allowing entry to 1,800 Syrian refugees this year. To date, almost 1,500 have been granted asylum. Secretary of State John Kerry is now engaged in bipartisan discussions with the Senate to design a much higher number of refugees to be given asylum.
The refugee crisis has become an issue in the presidential race. While U.S. politicians are discussing what the number of spots should be, the International Rescue Committee is urging the U.S. to set aside room for 65,000.
By presenting the issue of welcome in response to the disciples’ questions about who would be the greatest, Jesus emphasizes the relationship between welcome and greatness. His message: If you want to be great, you must celebrate and welcome others the most, especially those who can benefit you the least.
This kind of welcome is possible only when we see God in others.
I am encouraged about the possibilities offered in this moment in our nation’s history. This moment invites us to break through and tear down the walls of anti-Muslim fear that have been erected since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Now, the opportunity is for us to see the faces of Syrians and other refugees as people who seek peace, people who long for home, and people who have endured the ravages of civil war. And in their faces to see God.
What a sacred moment this offers us as a nation. What will we do?
For many of us, the answer to that question hinges on the projected impact of mass immigration on jobs, wages, and the overall economy. Based on recent history of mass immigration, employment and wages largely remain neutral in response to waves of immigrants. For example, when the 1980 Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to Florida, native U.S.-born workers did not lose jobs or overall economic ground. When Israel had a spike in Russian immigration in the early 1990s, the existing workforce experienced a nine percent increase in wages.
Spiritually, welcome is not about economics. Nor is welcome simply about granting asylum. Welcome doesn’t end with opening our shores — that’s when it really begins.
Because of the extreme anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment so pervasive in today’s media, we must think not only about a governmental immigration policy. We must also think about and pray for a spiritual principle of welcome.
Using my definition of welcome as “receiving others with gladness or delight,” we must begin to pray for guidance to discern any Muslim-suspicions within our own hearts and minds. Even the most Christian, liberal, and justice-seeking among us are not immune to unconscious incorporation of suspicions of others.
I know this well from personal experience — from the many times in workplaces, churches, schools, retail stores, and neighborhoods that I have been met with suspicious toleration, but not welcome. This suspicious toleration was shaped by the perceptions and assumptions others had about me, because I am black, gay, female, or full-figured. No welcome. No delighted reception. And I must confess, I have not always extended welcome to everyone, either.
Welcome doesn’t end with opening our shores — that’s when it really begins. Jesus invites us to our own greatness and tells us the path to that greatness is not based on our pre-judgments or assumptions about others, not based on whether we see them as our equals, and not based on our presumptions about whether they can benefit us in some way.
No, the path to our greatness as individuals, faith communities, and nations is the path of welcome — receiving others with gladness and delight. In order to do so, we must recognize the face of God in all people. Ultimately, this path also leads to peace.
You are welcome.