A couple months ago, on our way home from visiting my parents in Switzerland, Kathy and I spent a few days in Paris and a morning at the Rodin museum. Next to Chagall, Rodin is my favorite artist. There are moments when I wonder if he might have benefited from a better sense of humor, but I love the way his sculptures reach past the anxious buzz of my mind and tell my soul how much people matter. Emotion matters, gestures matter, hands and feet matter, the interplay of bodies in space matter, the movement of a body—even in bronze and without a head (okay, he does have some sense of humor)—matter. Muscles matter. In a way, that is Rodin's message for me: every muscle matters.
It was also thought provoking to leave the museum and walk past a homeless Syrian family camped out on a blanket at a busy corner near a bridge (we saw a bunch of these families). The wife feeding a baby with a spoon. The husband redirecting a toddler. I remember them smiling to each other about something. If muscles matter, then families matter. Heads and children and smiles and coins in a cup matter. It struck me as a piece of performance art, every bit as provocative as the sculptures in bronze.
Last week, after the French authorities cleared an encampment of refugees and migrants in Calais and disbursed them around the country, I’ve seen pictures of a growing encampment in Paris. Something rebellious in me wishes every city or town in the world had a little encampment at our centers if only as a piece of performance art to remind us that the displacement of 65 million in our world cannot be someone else’s challenge. It's our challenge. It’s one of the great challenges facing the human family and how (or whether) we respond to it will shape who we are and who we will become. Maybe this is crazy, but sometimes I wonder if our response to suffering even gets recorded in our own muscles and expressions. We too are, in some sense, sculpting ourselves by the movements of our hearts.
I’m writing, of course, after what feels to me like a devastating election result. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, and whoever you voted for (I am proud that Beautiful Day has a politically diverse group of readers and supporters because refugee resettlement has always been and should continue to be a bi-partisan concern; and yes, I do know this is complex; and, YES, I do know refugees who recently became American citizens who did vote for Trump and I celebrate their right to do that), it seems like you should know, if you don't already, that for most of us whose life work involves promoting racial reconciliation, the last few days have felt like being gutted. Oh, how painful it is. It really hurts.
I do think I understand the impulse of so many who voted for Trump. I have Appalachian roots. I’ve been out of work before. I earn less money than a lot of factory workers. If the new administration ends the resettlement program I'll be over 50 and figuring out how to pay college bills and my mortgage. In the ways that this election drew attention to the pain and indignities of those in our country who have lost work, then I am with them. This is one of Beautiful Day's motivating truths: most people don’t feel like a whole persons if they don't have a productive work. Yet this kind of pain could and should draw people together. It’s all very human. Pain in muscles matter. It's a reason for compassion. President-elect Trump's impulse to salve this pain by scapegoating and demonizing other races and religions, seems destined to backfire. How can we take our own suffering seriously if we deal with it by hardening our hearts towards those who suffer more than we do?
Specifically regarding refugees, I know there are many communities across our country who have started looking at refugee resettlement as an existential threat to their way of life. (Personally, I see it as a privilege mostly because living in a multi-cultural setting is one of the joys of my life—but this is a subject for another blog. For now we could meet in the middle on this issue and say that having refugees settle in your community can be frightening for those who've never been friends with one.) But what is the alternative to this frightening experience other than to close people out? Find our space—our home, our town, our work—and close doors behind us. Saying that Americans need to look out for our own suffering people first is half an argument. It still leaves 65 million displaced. It implies that poorer countries should be better able to handle refugees than we are. Ultimately it is supporting warehousing refugees in immense camps in the poorest countries, or pushing them back into places like Syria where they will live like sub-humans or die. Out of sight, out of mind, right? We've all heard a lot of half-arguments lately. When hate and prejudice start masquerading as love, something is very wrong. Resettlement programs take a tiny proportion of refugees, help integrate them into our communities, and create hope that can ripple out across the globe. Eventually settled refugees can become highly educated, culturally sophisticated children of refugees who have the greatest ability and incentive to devote their lives to solving the problems of human displacement. ( Yet another blog entry.) And programs like Beautiful Day who are taking on the practical challenges of onramping refugees with the high barriers into the job market, might even help contribute some meaningful ideas to workforce integration challenges for non-refugees in our country. Now is the time for our country and communities to get involved in displacement, when these issues are still more opportunity than crisis. In parts of Europe that tide has turned. I’m sorry if I sound exasperated—this is all just so self-evident to me—maybe because I grew up overseas and I don't believe there’s any such thing as a great America that is great at the expense of the world. The only true greatness is love. As for arguments advocating the shut-down of refugee resettlement in order to prevent terrorism? Let’s stick to the common ground that we all hate terrorism. But what if choosing to stop refugee resettlement programs just energizes the forces that create refugees? Warehousing millions in remote deserts is not a recipe to deter terrorism. What will our world be like when there are a 100 million displaced? Or 200 million. The decisions our country is making right now will directly impact how rapidly the poor of the world are displaced.
Which is why I think a small encampment or a family on a blanket in every town and city could help us remember that NOW is the time to be opening doors and designing solutions. Let’s figure it out while it’s still easy.
I’m sure I’m mostly preaching to the choir. I need to stop. We have some granola to make. We hope you’ll buy some. (If you are close to some people who are swallowing this refugee bashing line and sinker, then maybe send them a box of bars so they'll enjoy something refugees made.) And wherever you stand on the political spectrum, although especially those who voted for Trump, I hope you will speak up loudly for the displaced, and draw close to those in your life who are women or minorities or of other faiths or all three—I figure if I am hurting and afraid how do they feel?—and do your part in contributing to the essential work of separating political ideas from racism, fear, and prejudice.