Open Hearts, Open Doors
Special Commentary by James Standish
I sat down in the barber chair in a shop off New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring, Md. The woman cutting my hair introduced herself as “June,” and started in on the usual barbershop patter about length and style. In short order, we discovered a strange coincidence. June and I had been at exactly the same place, at the same time, at the same age. But at that time, our lives couldn’t have been more different.
In 1980 June fled Cambodia to a huge sprawling refugee camp just inside Thailand. And me? I was a teenager visiting the camp with ADRA workers (then called SAWS). As kids, we were on two sides of an invisible wall that gave me every opportunity in the world, and left her with nothing but a faint hope that, maybe someday, she’d find a home again.
Three decades later and thousands of miles away, time and circumstances had changed everything. June wasn’t a refugee anymore. She was just another Marylander getting on with life. And so was I. And that is when it hit me. All those faces I’d seen as a kid in that sprawling refugee camp? They were all just people like June. Given different circumstances, they might be the doctor who treats my child in the ER, the teacher at the local school, the public prosecutor, or the pastor preaching to me on Sabbath. Anything at all. Because no one is a “refugee” - we’re all just people.
Today’s Refugee Crisis
Today the world has a refugee crisis, and many of the refugees are Muslims. How should we respond? We don’t want to be soggy sentimentalists. After all, we’ve seen Islamic terrorists wreak carnage from Bangkok to Nairobi, Paris to Mumbai, London to New York City, Jerusalem to Baghdad. There’s a very real danger, coming from a specific segment of a religious community, and acknowledging that reality doesn’t make us bigots; it makes us honest.
But on the other hand, we don’t want to become cold hearted and irrational. After all, June fled Cambodia, where some of the worst crimes against humanity in history were committed. But we were able to separate her from the genocidal maniacs who tortured and slaughtered their way through the Cambodian population. She was the victim of these evil people - she wasn’t one herself. Many people in refugee camps are like June—they’re the victims of religious extremists who just want a chance at the peaceful life. The vast bulk of Muslims are no more murderous terrorists, than you or I are Branch Davidians. They’re just people trying to get on with life.
So how do we protect ourselves from a very real threat without surrendering to irrational prejudice? Wally Carson, Columbia Union vice president and General Counsel has a wise perspective.
Unto the Least of These
“Refugees are the very persons Christ was speaking of when He said: ‘When ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren…’ As followers of Christ we have a duty, in my opinion, to do whatever we can to help these people."
Carson continued, "While I can understand the need for heightened security, I'm troubled the current ban might discriminate against a particular religion. Yes, Christians have been marked for despicable acts of violence and persecution. So I do believe that special attention needs to be given to such communities to protect them from continued violence. But so have some minority Muslim communities and other minority faiths. Let’s work to protect the most vulnerable, no matter what community they come from.”
Before I got up from June’s barber seat she told me something that has stuck with me. “No one wanted to take my family. My mother was a widow with dependent kids. We weren’t economically attractive. But one nation was different.” That nation? The USA. Why? Because the USA is the greatest nation in history. In spite of our open hearts and open doors? No. It’s the greatest nation because of our open hearts and open doors. We need to act intelligently and thoughtfully to safely keep both open.
James Standish is the former director of Legislative Affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church World Headquarters and executive director for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He recently published Disneyland’s Back Door and Other Great Stories.