Roots and Shoots:  Getting to the Bottom of our Duty to Migrants, Dr. Robert Zuber


Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Rainer Maria Rilke

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not a single act, but a habit.  Aristotle

When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality. Al Capone

It was an odd and interesting week at the UN.  While diplomats fussed to little benefit inside the UN Security Council over Middle East policy and, more specifically, over a way forward on accountability for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, SG Guterres was laying out his “repositioning” agenda for the UN development system, one now threatened by both a lack of core funding and armed violence that undermines even the most sophisticated development plans.  Meanwhile, in a downstairs conference room, religious leaders joined with their UN counterparts to ascertain how religious institutions – and ostensibly their adherents – can better stand for justice and hospitality to the many millions of migrants – forced and voluntary — now on the move worldwide.

There is no way to adequately summarize the plight of so many migrant families in a world of falling bombs, failing farms and barbed wire strung up along every conceivable border.   Some migrate in search of economic or educational opportunity.  Others migrate to escape violence and abuse, famine and discrimination.   The fortunate end up being “rescued” by those who courageously reject what Lester Ruiz has called “the abuses of apathy and indifference.”  Others not so lucky find themselves in situations in which “indifference” might seem quite a tolerable alternative, as they are offered up in slave markets, risk the lives of their children on leaky rafts, or endure harsh winters in makeshift, summer-weight tents.

Perhaps the experience most common to migrants, including many who prayerfully anticipate family or close friends waiting for them at the end of their journey, is what Ruiz characterized as “unbearable limbo,” a limbo not only about residential status but about the ability to lay hold to the familiar.  Migrants (especially forced) often have along with them few of the personal items that bring them comfort; have scarce options for bathing or relieving themselves and often no idea where to locate them; have little or no local currency with which to buy provisions for their children and insufficient knowledge of local languages through which they might be able to barter a bit of human kindness.   This is “limbo” to a degree that most of us, even we who have tried to support the newly homeless, can barely imagine; lives for which the word “alien” might actually constitute a gross understatement.

The “Perspectives on Migration” event held at the UN on January 22 was sponsored by several agencies and (mostly Christian) religious organizations and featured participation by Deputy SG Amina Mohammed and USG Adama Dieng from the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.  The panels were interesting — if a bit overstocked with agency and religious leadership –and covered several key issues relevant to the well-being of migrants, including rule-of-law and human rights perspectives, and the moral and ethical imperatives pertaining to how we – our neighbors and congregations – respond to the multiple facets of “limbo” endured by so many migrant families.   Some of the helpful takeaways for me included one official’s citing of “patriarchal dominance” as a prime cause of human trafficking, an academic who urged interrogation of all factors that lead people to leave their homes and risk the threats associated with being “alien” (including from religion itself), and a policy expert who reminded us forcefully that “migrant voices in policy are essential,” and “human dignity must never, ever be taken for granted.”

This matter of panel participation might seem to readers as relatively inconsequential, but it actually cuts to the heart of our ability to grasp the staggering implications of migrant “limbo” as well as the “hospitality” to migrants that most in the room believed is one component of their religious ministry, even if the specifics of that application (as with all our ministry) would benefit from more careful scrutiny.

At UN events, the rule of thumb is that those who speak are those who are authorized to speak, that is, those who represent an institution that is deemed to have a well-defined “stake” in the proceedings.  That “stake” is liberally granted to the leadership of sponsoring agencies, less liberally granted to those whose voices might provide context and complexity – even critique – to the too-easy consensus that characterizes our mostly safe and orderly policy discussions in UN settings.

In fairness, there were some voices at this event with consensus-shaking capacity, including Sana Mustafa from the Network for Refugee Voices and Eni Lestari Andayani Adi of International Migrants Alliance.  But much of the discussion, like some of this post perhaps, served to recount the plight of migrants – about which most in the room were well familiar – but not to interrogate the extent to which so-called “people of faith” have exercised their best version of religious hospitality, one which as Ruiz noted during the event, “is not only an expression of welcome but a condition of unequivocal reciprocity.”

This reciprocity includes but reaches beyond cake and coffee for new arrivals, certainly beyond token appearances by migrants at policy conferences.   In many ways, it is really about us, about our capacity to listen to stories that will likely scramble our facile preconceptions, about our ability to confess the degree to which our “ministry” in the world too often reinforces dynamics of power and privilege that it is our faithful duty to critique.  Our gestures of hospitality are certainly laudable compared to the apathy and indifference that now casts a shadow over so many dimensions of human agency, but as I learned uncomfortably through my own church work and my often-filled apartment guest room, it is deceptively easy to take undeserved credit for my alleged “goodness” given all of the stories of struggle and alienation that lie still-unspoken within others.

Beyond this, there is a serious question regarding the degree to which officials of religious institutions—smart and well-meaning as they often are — represent the values and aspirations of those who –fully or nominally – adhere to their rules and ceremonies.  Many in the “religious community” at the UN seem closer to the margins of institutional orthodoxy than the center.   They “keep the faith” though not always the faith that others presume they are keeping, for theirs is mostly a “faith” that is (tightly or even clumsily) tied to an aspiring world of justice and sustainable development that rejects inequalities and the hierarchies which sustain them.  Bless them for that.

For many of these folks – certainly for me – the theological questions are much less about what institutional leaders are promoting and more about the faith that allows us to get up every morning, tilting at our windmills and keeping our eyes open and attentive – even if we sometimes need toothpicks to hold them in place.   It is about maintaining that tricky balance between the needs in front of us and the larger and more compelling inequities to which we must continually call attention, including and despite our own inadequacies of response. And it is about a certain kind of self-governance, understanding that all of us continue to fall short of divine glory, but knowing, with Aristotle and many others, that we can fall a little bit less short, day by day.

Indeed, part of the journey of faith is walking our path and part is about dwelling with the right questions, the ones that direct our service without indulging our self-righteousness.  It is, indeed, an obligation of the religious community to remind ourselves that locating the “root causes” for (especially) forced migration and other mass global challenges requires us to do little more than look in a mirror.  It is in the mirror that we are reminded that bombs don’t drop themselves.  Slave markets do not mysteriously materialize.  Farmlands do not decide of their own accord to cease their productive capacities.  Babies born from sexual assault in war zones are not immaculate conceptions.  These are things we do, we as a race, as a species that has clearly not learned to live with each other as reciprocal beings, as leaves from a common stem, as sisters rather than strangers.

It is not at the level of institutional leadership but in places of community discernment that the promises and duties of migrant-focused ministry are most clearly represented; all the places where we have set out, good naturedly or not, too much metaphorical cake for diabetics, too much pork for Muslims, too much processed cheese for the lactose intolerant.  We still have much to learn about the dynamics of our own hospitality, dynamics which we must practice with more thoughtfulness; and then pray that others do likewise when it is our own rivers that have over-run their banks, our own streets that are brimming with violence, our own farmlands that will no longer yield their fruits.

Despite what you might read and hear, the millions of people now on the move – by choice and especially by crisis — are not coming for our jobs; indeed in some sense they are coming for our souls.

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