“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Isaiah 5:7-8).
This morning as I walked through the living room of Manna House, Bert stopped me and said, “We are refugees, refugees from class war.” The house was packed with people, as was the front yard. A steady wind intensified the morning cold. Guests from the streets wrapped their hands around their recently filled coffee cups, trying to get warmth back into frozen fingers. Last week a guest told me, “We’re refugees from Mississippi.” Another guest responded, “I’m a refugee from Arkansas.”
Later in the morning, still thinking about refugees, I asked a guest where he was from. “Eritrea,” he said, “I couldn’t live there anymore.” According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrea government’s human rights record is one of the worst in the world. Over the years we have had refugees from Mexico and Vietnam, and perhaps other countries. Still most of the refugees at Manna House are “internal refugees” from right here in the U.S.A.
Neither Bert nor the other guests I talked with begrudged admitting refugees from Syria. They just wanted to make clear they knew the suffering of refugees. They, too, had to move because life was no longer tenable where they were. Sometimes it was job loss. Sometimes violence or the threat of violence. They, too, faced suspicion and even hatred and harassment as they sought to find a new place to live. They, too, know what it is like to be unwanted. They, too, have experienced relying upon the hospitality of others in order to survive.
In the past week, as the debate about letting Syrian refugees enter the U.S. has raged, some who oppose letting them in have claimed the U.S. should first take care of the homeless, especially homeless veterans. I have my doubts that those making that claim have actually ever really cared about people on the streets or veterans. I think that way because it was mostly Republican leadership rejecting admitting the Syrian refugees, and their record on providing services to people experiencing homelessness, including homeless veterans, is not exactly laudable. They also lead the charge for cutting any “welfare” programs, including social security.
Bert, I think, got it right. He and others who come to Manna House are refugees from class war. The prophet Isaiah, saw class war as waged by the wealthy upon the poor as a rejection of God. Wealth which God intended to be distributed justly ended up in the hands of a few. In this class war, Manna House is a refugee center. Shelters are refugee camps. Class war (and so often joined with race war) drives people out of homes and into the streets. And then once in the streets, the powers that be see “the homeless” as a threat. So laws are passed against “aggressive panhandling,” and “urban camping” or “climbing a park structure” (the charge for sleeping on a park bench).
How to respond to refugees? Prophets like Isaiah knew the God of the Exodus. This God stood first with slaves, and then with refugees from slavery, and finally reminded them once they had their own land, “You shall neither wrong strangers, nor oppress them: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 21:23). And then Jesus took it a step further. He urged his disciples to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, welcome to the stranger, and visit those sick or imprisoned. Remember, he said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).
I am grateful Bert made the connection this morning between Manna House and refugees, and between refugees here and those coming from Syria. The clear commitment biblically is to welcome refugees, wherever they come from. And why? Not only does God say so, but God stands in the midst of those refugees and identifies with them. God promises to be present when refugees are welcomed. That is a mighty joyous promise to stand on.