I started out thinking I could rescue the refugees from their hellish situations in the camps. I am now convinced that wisdom simply lies in being with them wherever they are. I came to this understanding rather slowly, and not without difficulty.
The six weeks that Nhai Bee’s family spent at our motherhouse opened my eyes to a larger world, one I was now eager to explore. And so I made arrangements to set off for Thailand for a year’s immersion in a refugee camp.
When I first set out, I might as well have been Indiana Jones. Each day was sheer adventure. I’d never been out of the United States before, and now here I was flying off to Bangkok. My initial calling to this ministry had been through a dream in which it was clear that the refugees would be teaching me many things, above all “a new way of loving,” but I’m afraid I lost sight of that humble perspective shortly after the plane left the San Francisco Airport.
The plane was heading to Thailand in order to pick up a full load of Southeast Asian refugees destined for permanent resettlement in the United States. In the company of nine seasoned refugee workers, I managed to transform myself, within the space of a 22-hour flight, into a grand emissary of mercy, an agent of God who would do great things, able to leap tall oceans in a single bound, sent to rescue beleaguered exiles.
The year was 1981. The U.S. hostages in Iran had just been freed. Ronald Reagan’s elevation to the Oval Office was playing out before crowds who wanted to forget about domestic inflation, defeat in Vietnam, and humiliation in Tehran. Americans were yearning for old-fashioned, feel-good, flag-waving patriotism. But all was not well in the world. Partly as a humanitarian response to the televised anguish of the “boat people,” partly to assuage our own national conscience about the war that had ended so badly—but mostly to address the political sensitivities of the U.S.’s remaining allies in Southeast Asia—Congress had decided to allow thousands of refugees into the U.S. from camps throughout the region. I, as a refugee camp worker, would be one small player in this brave new exodus.
During the ensuing months, as I worked with the Lao refugees who lived within the barbed-wire enclosure of that dusty, forgotten corner of the Earth, those images of myself as Super-nun wilted completely.
From This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers, by Marilyn Lacey, RSM, with permission from Ave Maria Press. Copyright 2009.