I have the pleasure as serving, for the second year in a row, as a Faith and Justice Leader for the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) at Emory University this summer. Each summer, for over 20 years, approximately 35-40 rising high school juniors and seniors from across the country, gather for a three-week experience in Christian theological education. YTI is a center for research and youth theological education with a goal of cultivating a cadre of public theologians for the church and society.
My role in YTI is to expose the scholars to hard truths around immigration and refugees in the Atlanta area. As we explore these diverse communities, I engage with the scholars to ask them where they see God at work in the spaces that we visit. I help them shape a theological framework of the issues surrounding migration through refugee placement and immigration matters.
This past week, we visited the City of Clarkston which as been described as the most diverse one square mile in the United States. It was eye opening for the scholars. We visited vast apartment complexes and observed Bhutanese, Pakistani, Somalian and African Americans walking around in their common neighborhood. We saw a huge college, a deaf school, a mosque, several churches and Buddhist temples all within walking distance of each other. We saw store signs in all kinds of languages. We saw difference. We saw peaceful community.
Often, these refugees come as a family and do not know anyone. Most do not speak English. The younger ones learn fast. The elderly often suffer from depression as they may suffer from isolation. They are coming from war torn countries and they are the poorest of the poor from such environments. For instance, the Karen of Bhutan are mostly farmers. Lack of education tends to be an issue. One of the ways some of the elderly Karen men stay engaged here is to cultivate community farms.
Usually, the refugees are placed in specific communities that have contracts with refugee relocation services. They are supported financially for only a particular period of time and then they have to work and repay their relocation costs. So they may stay in one of these apartment complexes for only a year or two. Then they have to move as they are expected to be on their feet.
I took the scholars through a particularly stark neighborhood. The Somalis are among the older refugees as many of them came to the States in the late 90’s and early 2000. Therefore, they have been off the refugee structural supports for some time. Many live in this particular neighborhood. The scholars were shocked at the visible neglect of the neighborhood and many of them had not seen this type of poverty in America. The grass and weeds were taller than humans. Abandoned cars donned the lots. Burnt out carcasses of apartment-style housing was a contrast next to fully occupied units. Many windows were boarded up and debris littered the complex.
A few hundred yards away, a few newer and obviously significantly more expensive homes were under construction. A wise scholar asked, “How come this neighborhood is going through gentrification and there are poor people right in their backyards?”
My question to the scholars was, “Where do you see God in this community?” The scholars saw God in the diversity of worship structures and in the diversity of people living in those spaces. They saw God in the beauty of diverse people living together. They saw God in the history of the city of Clarkston and how it had the malleability to morph into something inclusive and embracing.
They saw the absence of God in the gentrification and in the poor, run-down and neglected buildings. I also asked them about the responsibility the government and the community have to refugees as we allow them to come into this space called America and sell them the American dream and then we forget about them as they become the poorest of our poor.
One young lady spoke of her experience of going on a missions trip to Haiti and a young boy asked her this question: “How come God made you rich so you can come here and bring me gifts but God made me poor?”
She asked me how I would answer the question. I was then able to share the concept of theodicy, the speculations as to why God permits evil.
More importantly, I asked her to discern why the little boy was asking that question to determine how she would response to him. The question could be answered in a variety of ways:
- Theologically – Why is there evil in the world?
- Psychologically – I want to be rich so I can do things for poor people like myself.
- Sociologically – My perception of your wealth makes me aware of my poverty.
- Emotionally – My feelings are hurt as to why you a rich and I am poor.
Needless to say, we were all in tears as we imagined the motivations of a little Haitian boy saying, “Why am I poor?”
We ended up having a rich discussion as to how poverty is a man-made construct because of war, hoarding of resources, human depletion of the environment and bad governance.
Why is this important to you?
- Encounters change you. This was an encounter.
- Awesome leaders know what is going on in their cities.
- Going into uncomfortable places expands your mindset.
- Diversity is not enough. Inclusion is a step higher.
- Reaching back to teach youth what you know is part of the legacy you are cultivating for your life.
- You are incredibly wealthy already.
- You are also part of the poverty cycle in your own community because you contribute to it.
- You can train yourself to see God in the most unlikely places.
- This is what living your faith out in your work looks like.
- Nourish your soul with new experiences to expand yourself to be a better leader.
If you earn over $35,000, you are spectacularly wealthy compared to the rest of the world. The top 1% of earners on the planet earn this amount of money or more. Shift your paradigm and think differently about your wealth status on the planet.
My hope, dear reader, is that we are all aware of how incredibly fortunate we are regardless of where we fall in terms of income. My further hope is that you will ask yourself how you are contributing to the cycle of poverty in your immediate community. Ignorance is one way we all contribute. Supporting local ventures in that community is one way we can counteract that ignorance. Hiring refugees and enfolding them into our square on the quilt of our community is a great way also.
We also contribute to the cycle of poverty in our communities when we are unaware of the biases that we have towards immigrants and refugees.
What are some of the ways you can support refugees and immigrants in your community?
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