by ELIZABETH G. FERRIS
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I met Ms. Thomas in a refugee camp last year in Danané, Ivory Coast. The sadness in her eyes was so deep I found it painful to meet her gaze as she talked about her children trapped in Monrovia, Liberia.
"We were separated in the fighting," she explained. "I thought someone else was taking them to the Ivory Coast, but when I arrived, I discovered they had been left behind. It has been three years since I've seen them. How can a mother live without her children?"
How can a mother live without her childen?
The question continues to haunt me as I think of the millions of families who have been torn apart by the violence of uprooting.
In Ms. Thomas' case, churches in Liberia and the United States helped her get her children out of Liberia. Just this spring, I received a letter from her reporting they were planning to return to Liberia.
"It may not be safe, but with God's grace, we will make it back. It's time to go home."
Reaching out to uprooted people -- whether in Danané or in Dallas -- is connecting with other human beings. Behind each of the 50 million or so uprooted people in the world is a family, a story, a child of God. It is in the reaching out that we allow ourselves to be transformed.
These last years of the 20th century are a time of massive uprooting of people. On every continent, people are being forced to leave their communities. Some are leaving because of war. Some are leaving because they have been singled out for persecution. Others are fleeing drought or famine or because they can no longer support themselves.
We use many terms to classify these people -- refugees, internally displaced, economic migrants -- but churches are beginning to use the word uprooted to describe all of those forced to leave their communities. Just as a tree is uprooted from the soil that gives it life, so, too, uprooted people have been torn from the communities that sustain them.
About 16 million of the world's uprooted have crossed an international border because of civil war, violence or persecution. Another 26 million have been displaced by widespread violence but remain within their own countries. Latin America, for example, has relatively few refugees, but up to 3 million internally displaced people -- particularly in Peru and Colombia. Internally displaced people are more vulnerable to violence because they remain close to the conflict that displaced them. Provision of assistance to internally displaced people is usually more difficult than to refugees as the ongoing violence creates logistical and political problems for relief agencies.
Most of the world's uprooted are the victims of civil conflicts, and this is an era of virulent conflicts -- in places such as Chechnya, Sudan, Angola, Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bosnia. The causes of the conflicts are complex, but usually include a mixture of ethnic and religious hatred, greed, political ambitions, and the clash between nationalist movements and governments determined not to lose control of their territory.
Unlike wars of even a decade ago, the uprooting of communities isn't just a by-product of conflict, but has become the deliberate objective of warring parties. For example, the 3 million people uprooted in the former Yugoslavia are not unintended consequences of war. The point of the conflict was to force people to leave.
In Rwanda, Burundi, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the forced displacement of populations is a central objective of the warring factions. Consequently, the numbers of people displaced in these conflicts are extraordinary. More than 50 percent -- and perhaps as high as 80 percent -- of Liberia's population was displaced by war. Somalia produced 500,000 refugees and many more internally displaced in a short period of time. In Rwanda, half a million people were massacred in the first half of 1994, followed by an exodus of around 2 million refugees to Tanzania and Zaire, most of whom fled from their homeland within a single week.
These sudden mass influxes of people into neighboring communities and countries produce enormous strain on the international humanitarian system.
Uprooting is not a new phenomena. The Bible is full of stories of people forced to leave their communities for the same reasons they flee today:
The stories of flight, of exile, of famine and of persecution are central to our Christian tradition.
And as in biblical times, our response to the uprooted who arrive on our borders or in our communities is a mixture of hospitality and compassion and scapegoating and rejection. The biblical mandate is clear: to welcome the stranger, to treat the foreigner as one of you, to extend kindness to the sojourner. Barbara Gere, a United Methodist laywoman in Virginia, agreed to help a Bosnian refugee family arriving in her community with only a few days' notice. She talks of her work to find housing, medical care and jobs for the family. But mostly she talks of how wonderful it has been for her:
Work with uprooted people isn't always joyful. It can be emotionally wrenching to try to help someone and fail. Getting involved with terrified people facing deportation and seeing them sent away is a horrible experience. Watching children die from malnutrition or land mines creates feelings of rage and impotence.
While these experiences are far from joyful, they are transforming. Ms. Gere talks about the pain of watching the father of this Bosnian family die from cancer a few months after he arrived in the United States.
"It was so unfair that after all he'd been through he should die shortly after he came," she said. "I prayed and I yelled at God to give this family a break. By the time he died, we had made our peace with it. His last words were of gratitude and pride that he had been able to bring his family to safety."
Where is hospitality?
Too often we don't welcome the strangers among us. In the United States today, there is a backlash against immigrants -- a fear of foreigners -- that we often see in our own congregations. It may be, as in the time of the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah who blamed Israel's problems on foreign-born wives, we are living in an era where it is easier to attribute our problems to foreigners than to our own societies.
Uprooted people are often seen as a threat to our way of life. But the threat of the uprooted is that they have the potential to shake our complacency. In South Florida, many English-speaking European-Americans have moved out of Miami because schools and communities are now largely Spanish-speaking. Many European-Americans and Hispanic-Americans in South Florida live completely separate lives. They shop in different areas, send their children to different schools, worship in separate churches.
But it is in shaking this complacency that we open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.
In English, hospitality is a fairly weak word. I am hospitable when I offer my guests a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies. My church -- like many in the United States -- has a hospitality committee that doesn't have much to do with welcoming visitors to our church, but rather with preparing refreshments for social functions.
The Bible shows us a different side of hospitality. For example, on the road to Emmaus, Christ approaches two strangers and chats with them. They invite him home for supper, and as they are eating, Christ reveals himself to his hosts.
Think about this story for a moment. Christ reveals himself to strangers -- after they have eaten together. If they hadn't invited him home with them, he probably wouldn't have told him who he really was.
Think about our modern lives. In my town, if I were walking down a road and saw a stranger, I probably wouldn't chat with him or her. I certainly wouldn't invite the person home to eat supper with us.
One of the hallmarks of modern society is a retreat into individualism -- coupled with a fear of the unknown, a fear of strangers.
This wasn't always the case. Even a generation ago, in the United States, there were many displays of hospitality. During the Depression, my grandparents were very poor, but they didn't lose their house. They told many stories about inviting poor people in to eat with them, of sharing their meager food, of not knowing how they were going to feed their own kids, but somehow managing to scrape something together for the down-and-out person on their doorstep.
When Rwandan refugees poured across the border into Goma, Zaire, in 1994, churches opened their doors to the refugees, welcoming them into their homes and schools. The same display of hospitality was evident in Honduras when the Salvadoran refugees began arriving and in the Ivory Coast when Liberian refugees fled their country's civil war.
We have a rich tradition of hospitality in this country and a glorious heritage as a nation of immigrants. We need to be proud of these traditions and to reclaim them. Reaching out to uprooted people in our communities is a wonderful expression of Christian compassion and an affirmation of our national heritage.
One of the obstacles in the United States and many Western countries to greater congregational involvement with uprooted people is the fact that our governments are making it more difficult for people to enter our countries to ask for asylum or for churches to have contact with them.
In the United States, for example, new legislation makes it almost automatic that asylum-seekers are kept in detention from the time of their arrival until a decision is made on their case. These detention centers are in some of the most remote areas of the country -- Florence, Ariz., and Oakdale, La., for example -- which makes it difficult for anyone to even know they are there. When people are locked up in distant detention centers, the opportunities for congregations to reach out to them on a personal level, or even to advocate for their release, is difficult.
Advocacy is needed to change provisions of the law -- known as summary exclusion -- that allow asylum-seekers to be locked up and to be sent back directly from airports without having a chance to tell their stories.
The United Methodist Church has been in the forefront of efforts to respond to the needs of uprooted people at home and abroad. United Methodists are supporting efforts to address the causes of uprooting through their work at the United Nations and their ongoing work of confronting economic and political structures that oppress people. United Methodist Commitee on Relief provides support to churches and ecumenical groups working with refugees on every continent and is actively involved in resettling refugees throughout the United States. And United Methodists are involved in advocacy at the national and international levels. Through the work of The United Methodist Church, hundreds of individuals have spoken up to protest legislation that makes it more difficult for people to find protection in the United States. In the process of reaching out to uprooted people, many individual United Methodists have been transformed.
Accompanying uprooted people means sharing their suffering and their joys while they are in exile, and where possible, when they return home. Like Ms. Thomas, most of the world's 50 million uprooted people want to go home.
Working to create a world where people can live in justice and dignity -- and where they aren't uprooted from their communities -- is our ultimate goal. But as long as people are forced to flee their homes in terror and despair, churches and individual Christians are challenged to reach out to the uprooted among us. As we are reminded in Hebrews 13:1, by doing so, we may be welcoming angels without knowing it.
Elizabeth G. Ferris is director of Church World Services Immigration and Refugee Program, and author of Uprooted! Refugees and Forced Migrants, the textbook for the 1998-99 mission study, "Refugees and Global Migration."