This is a very personal message. But, for once, I think it’s okay for me to share from a deeper personal place, because I’m guessing that’s how many of you have felt the news over the last week. Deeply. Personally.
As news broke this summer that Trump is seriously considering reducing the number of refugees that would be allowed into our nation in 2020 to zero—yes, zero—another news story made this potential of a zero Presidential Determination number incredibly visual, if not visceral, to me.
Scrolling an article about Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, I could almost hear the “Send them back” chants. I could feel the reverberation. And I knew then that this Presidential Determination was not just a president flexing his nationalistic muscle. It reflected the way a minimum of 8,000 Americans really feel. The “you don’t belong here” message of a playground bully is really out there en masse. The realization was sickening.
Maybe it’s worth noting here that I am a Christian. That I believe the words of the Apostle James, who said that wisdom is “characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings,” that you can “develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” (James 3:17-18)
I’m not the only one of my neighbors who believes this ancient way of wisdom is the way to grow a healthy, or truly great (to borrow a word from the President’s vernacular) community. My Muslim friends and neighbors agree. My perspective comes from my experience running a non-profit, Refuge Coffee, that offers living-wage jobs, job training and mentorship to resettled refugees. We have a coffee shop and coffee trucks that cater all over Atlanta. “Booming” is how I’d describe us on most days. Since our beginnings in 2015, we’ve welcomed hundreds of thousands of people from more than 80 countries here at our little corner in Clarkston, Georgia. I have seen first-hand that treating each other with dignity and honor works in our community of people from more than 40 countries.
As we discussed the latest news from Washington about refugee resettlement, a friend said, “Christians have been responding to injustice with ‘manners’ for too long.” If by “manners” my friend meant doing nothing, patting everyone on the arm, and telling us to all be nice, I agree that this is not a strategy that will lead to justice. But if he meant that instead of being polite, our strategy should be the very thing I’ve wanted to do since reading about the rally in North Carolina—gather our own mob of 8,000 angry people to chant hateful epithets at our enemies—I’m not so sure. Shouting back only creates more shouting, and before you know it, we’re all deaf or plugging our ears.
But my response to the increasingly unwelcoming, downright hateful, demeaning, dishonorable language and actions from our White House (it is ours, you know) needs to escalate. So, I’m calling for an escalation of the very thing Refuge Coffee was founded to create: Welcome.
Here are a few wise, welcoming things we can do that 8,000 screaming people cannot:
We can start conversations. You know, the kind of conversations where we ask thoughtful questions and listen to each other’s answers. Where we don’t gang up on each other and use pauses as opportunities to reload. Where we put aside our assumptions and give each other the benefit of the doubt. I’m not talking about the reactive conversations you have on the fly or the theoretical ones you have in your head or out loud with your friends in the “presence” of a straw combatant on the Internet. I’m talking about face-to-face encounters with people who are not like you that you initiate.
It may be somewhat opportunistic for me to say this, but a coffee shop is a great place to have those conversations. I know a place.
We can affirm our neighbors. We can scroll down our list of contacts to names like Noura or Ali or Mohammed or Karim, and we can text those friends to remind them we love them, that we’re glad they’re here among us. That they belong. I’m doing that one today.
We can create opportunities. We can spend so much of our time and energy and resources opening doors that we don’t have the time or the energy leftover to scream.
Refuge Coffee is one of many organizations making opportunities for refugees, opportunities for our new neighbors to not only survive, but to thrive. And for them, in that thriving, to give back to the country and communities that welcomed them.
We can take a deep breath and make a phone call to Washington to register our displeasure. We can call our congressional representatives and senators and ask them to support refugees. They work for us, after all. We can write letters. We can ask our friends at our churches and mosques and temples to do the same. In fact, in my visceral urge to shout back, this one act reminds me I am not powerless; neither am I forced into a corner where shouting epithets is my only recourse.
These are just a few of the things we can do that 8,000 screaming fans cannot do. These are real, wise, welcoming action steps that I believe go beyond “manners.” In fact, if the current sentiment toward refugees prevails in our government’s places of power, these strenuous yet seemingly small actions may one day soon become seditious ones, just as those who participated in the Underground Railroad during our country’s Antebellum days and those who hid Jews before and during World War II committed acts of kindness that translated into treason. And if that day comes, I’d like to go on record that I will not stop.