And though there was a general strike in France and transportation was next to impossible, 70 of us got together to encourage and celebrate our special guests. Those guests are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Guinee, Rwanda, Sudan, and many other difficult countries. The night was sponsored by Serve the City Paris and The Refugee Ministry of the American Church in Paris. We also had many guests from Kabubu who help refugees integrate into France through sports.
Have you ever found yourself labeling those who are different from you? I have. I grew up in the 60’s and became a teen in the 70’s; it was a predominately white culture where it was normal for me to hear words like fag, queer, and from time to time the ‘n’ word. I never thought much of it, no one seemed to. My world was small and the demographic was mostly unicultural. It was the way we interacted. But I must say that those three words, as a boy, sounded unusual to me. But I was never actually aware of anyone who fit in those categories, at least not for a long time. As for the ‘n’ word, I would go to the corner store and ask the owner to fill up a little paper sack with 10 cents worth of ‘nigger babies!’ What? Yep, those delicious black licorice candies in the shape of little people were called nigger babies. That was my world. And I never knew the effect that these labels would have on me as I grew up.
The demeaning label that I heard most was ‘fag or faggot’. Boys would sometimes call each other that in jest, but it was meant, in a weird sort of way, to degrade the masculinity of the other. The label was powerful. I recall a conversation I had years later in a Chiang Mai restaurant. A visiting friend found out I loved watching the Amazing Race on television. The current season at the time featuered a gay couple. That was rare then. As I was always a week behind watching the series, when the visitor let it slip that the gay couple had won, I responded in disgust, “No way, not those fags!” The words came out so quickly that they surprised even me. I had believed in the label.
Months after that conversation about the gay couple, I was at the Don Muang airport waiting for guests to come through the arrival’s gate in Bangkok. I saw a white man dressed as a woman. I immediately went into critical mode. “Man, that’s a white guy! Shoot! And he can’t even put lipstick on right!” As I silently mocked him, another inner voice spoke to me, “Peter, would you be so offended if that was your own son?” It felt like a spiritual slap in the heart! The phrase ‘if it was your son’ woke me up to my bias against the gay community. I was guilty of seeing that man as less than part of the human family, judging him as somewhat unworthy, all because of the lens of my demeaning label.
I am Canadian. We are known for their tolerance. So when NHL commentator Don Cherry castigated immigrants to Canada on live television as, “You people,” it riled up a lot of people. How could he talk like that! Don was upset because, in his view, the immigrant population disrespected Canada by not wearing a poppy during the Remembrance Day holiday. He called them, “You people!” Then off he went about these people not appreciating the sacrifices our soldiers made to give us Canadians ‘milk and honey.’ Soon it was frontline news worldwide! To the surprise of some, Sportsnet fired Don faster than a Bobby Hull slapshot! To a lot of boomers it seemed like a lot of hoopla about nothing. But was it just a slip of the tongue? We’ll never really know, but what we do know is that no one appreciates being dehumanized with a label.
And this is the thing, we all have used labels at some time or another. Throughout our lifetime we have unconsciously accumulated these biases and, for the most part, are unaware of them. Those sneaky biases snuck through the backdoor of daily conversations, politics, culture, and even religion. Religious and political leaders disguise labels and biases as concerns. One is worried that their followers will be contaminated by too much relationship with the world, while the other stokes our fears by repeating their concerns for the safety of the country, families, jobs, and the future.
“If we let all these people in they will make it worse for all of us!”
So take a look at us now, thousands of years of humanity living together on earth and we still see whole people groups through the lens of demeaning labels. We seemed to have forgotten our history lessons about the pogroms and genocides and religious wars! Here in France the majority of descendants of immigrants still feel like they can never truly be French. Why? White French culture told them to wear the label ‘not-really-french’.” It’s too easy to see that labeling remains present in every realm of life. And honestly they do nothing to bring healing to our world.
I’ve had to come to grips with my own biases and labels and change the way I saw certain groups of people. It could be that, like me, you do too! Maybe the way you see gays, asylum seekers, overweight people, handicapped folks, old people, blacks, and any race for that matter, etc, as nuisances at best and unworthy at worst.
What should we do then? Begin by reminding yourself of how easy it is to fear those who are different than us. Start there. Do you harbour fears and biases towards those who look different than you or believe passionately in things you don’t? If you do then realize that any labels you use will only divide the human race. It begins with avoidance and usually ends in some kind of judgement. We divide the world into good and bad, worthy and unworthy, etc. The last step is the one we most need to hear. Please listen to the words of Jesus in my paraphrase, “It’s easy to love those who like you back. Nothing special about that at all. But I say go and love even those to whom you have given the label ‘wrong’, ‘unworthy’, or ‘enemy.’” Can’t find any advice much better than this in today’s bookstores!
I have had to let go of my labels, many times in fact. It took time and a deep look at my own heart. I finish with a story of a boy, a son, who came out as gay. He was 15 years old when he wrote to Patricia and I something like this, “Dear Mom and Dad, I need to tell you that I am gay!” That day my world was turned upside down. Though my label of ‘gay’ had started to be dismantled in a Bangkok airport, I was still holding on to the idea that gay people are just damaged by sin. I told my son that evening he was mistaken, that he was straight. I took him rock climbing and did more father things with him. But he remained gay. We took him to counseling. The counselor, a christian, sat us down and said, “Your son is really gay. Love him without trying to change him into your image.” And through love, ours for him and his for us, we have learned to never look at gay people through the lens of dissapointment, derision or scorn.
It’s time we drop the demeaning labels that have to do with gender, race or religion and chose to love unconditionally all people. This has become for me the only way to live in the neighborhood!
I have a hate affair with anger. I simply cannot bare to watch violence up close. But I’ve seen it erupt quite a few times in France, far too often. So not to sound self-righteous, when I think of anger I have to admit that it has at times burned in me. I know what it feels like to lose perspective and control. We’ve been told it is good thing to express your anger. I am not sure its a licence to go nuts though! Nonetheless, there are some things that should make us angry and we need to express it with conviction. Injustice is one of those things, it should elicit a strong sense of emotion and then action in us. Yes, we can be angry without becoming aggressive and hateful. All anger and wrath that leads to harsh words or hurtful actions is what we all, every human, should put away.
I’m writing about anger because I don’t want to forget what I just experienced. You are undoubtedly aware of the refugee crisis. It’s worldwide. However in Paris the amount of asylum seekers living rough on the streets begs an answer. The large group of refugees and asylum seekers that came today for the feeding program that includes a simple baguette and tea and instant coffee was staggering. Lines of waiting people were longer than usual. And the patience of some wore thin. Then a fight broke out. One man who had cut the line numerous times to pick out a piece of bread was shoved by another and it escalated. They were from different countries and that might even have made things worse. I found myself jumping to action squeezing between the two and temporarily shoving them apart. It was impossible to stop the anger. One took off his shirt to show his sculpted muscles and I knew this was not good. That’s when I took an errant fist to my chin by the other. It wasn’t hard, but it rang in my ears for a bit and my jaw ached. So many people came to stop the two and common sense took place and the muscular one laughed and the two stopped. That was fight one!
The second fight occurred about five minutes later and was even crazier when one of the asylum seekers snatched a knife from the bread cutting station and chased another who had offended him. Luckily there are some refugees that hate violence too. And a few strong refugees were able to wrench the knife away. Soon after it was calm again. But one of the leaders of the Association was telling everyone that if they continued this stuff they’d close down shop!
In a way I was glad that my visiting six young men and women from Quebec saw this. It was a reality shock for them. I had asked them to organize activities with the men and they planned accordingly to do so with this same group of men. However after the fights there were second thoughts. I was wavering too. I wanted the asylum seekers and refugees to have fun. I talked to a Palestinian woman who volunteered as a lawyer to help these men figure out next steps about what just happened. We discussed the trauma of living rough in Paris especially for those who had seen so much violence and hardship in their homelands, not even counting the arduous and dangerous journey to get here. My heart was being stirred again.
Thankfully, in the end the atmosphere calmed down and the Quebec team felt safe enough to play a quick game of soccer with some of the men. I sat while they played with four afghans in the park. I tried to figure the game of cards they were playing. While we politely chatted exchanging names they put away their cards. They wanted to talk. They described to me how in the last week two of them had been separately robbed while asleep in their tents. This is far too common a story with people living rough. Tents are often ripped open with a knife and bags stolen without the sleeping one even hearing a sound. Sadly for these afghani men, all their valuable papers were gone. The smiles were gone, it was a moment of despair. Now this, I say, is exactly what should make us angry! And in that moment I felt deep compassion and righteous anger, I guess, stirring in me again. “Next time”, I said, “If you have really important documents, give them to me, I’ll hold them for you!” They appreciated the gesture.
Our little world is brimming full of anger because of repeated injustices inflicted on the helpless, including, or especially on the asylum seekers. Paris has made me realize once again that many thousands have little in life. Over one hundred thousand people applied for asylum in France last year, a record. Once here is nowhere else for these men to turn. They left their horrible situations with hopes of a better life. The journey to get to Europe was fraught with danger, hard and rough. Not all who attempt to cross the sea make it alive, the latest statistics say every day six people drown trying to cross the Mediterranean! The ones who finally made it to Europe, to what they thought was salvation, discover this is no heaven here. It is lonely. It is dangerous. Its is poverty. It is disdain. It is a loss of dignity. It is almost without mercy. No wonder fights do break out; its surprising there aren’t more!
As I write these words, I need to call out, ” Peacemakers come forth!” We may be hesitant to get between two fighters, but the real call is to leave the safety of our comfort zones and bring encouragement, practical kindness and love! Maybe you are one of those? My jaw doesn’t ache now, but my heart still does, for my Parisian world, and for all those other distant places where dignity is stolen by war, poverty, culture, religion and racism, places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Guinea, Chad, and Syria and……. and ……. where peace is almost non-existent.
There once was a wealthy man who owned the best farmland in the country. His hired hands were well-trained and the farm prospered. But the real love of his life, even more than the farm, were his two beautiful boys, who for the record, couldn’t be any more different!
The oldest boy was the kind of son every father dreams of, disciplined, hard-working, and rarely questioning what he was asked to do. The younger boy, however, was of the free-spirited kind, always asking questions, and he would rather play than work anyday! While the older boy carefully learned the tools of the trade preparing himself for the day he would be a landowner himself, the younger carefree son couldn’t wait to get out and discover the real world!
Some weeks after his 20th birthday bash the youngest son said to his father, “Dad may I have a minute with you?” And for the longest minute he spoke frankly of his boredom on the farm and how he dreamed to discover the world out there. “Father,” he said, “I hear the world calling for me, I have to go and discover my place in it! And I know it pains you for me to ask you this, but the only way forward for me is to get my portion of the inheritance right now.” The father was silent for a moment, although he knew deep down that this day was coming, it still took him aback to hear his son’s request. “You are free to go,” he finally exhaled and sadly watched as his playful and curious son walked out of their lives.
The young man rented a large upscale apartment in a bustling city. He was fascinated by all the sights, the lights and his newfound freedom. He could now go to bed whenever he wanted and wake up and not worry about chores. His carefree spirit, good looks and seemingly endless wealth attracted a lot of attention. He soon became the toast of the town, but not always for the right reasons. His apartment unexpectedly became ‘the place’ for the best parties. The pretty girls couldn’t be more plenty. The drugs always found a way into the parties and enhanced his feelings of happiness. “This is the good life,” he thought. But little did he know he was being played as much as he loved to play. The girls had their way with him and his wallet. His new friends knew how to pry one more joint, pop one more pill, stay for one more drink, order another pizza, and, of course, party all weekend. It took its toll on him and his bank account. The bills for repairs and the endless parties for his so-called friends kept adding up. The day came, of course, when it was all gone, every cent of his inheritance.
The owner of the apartment had no choice but throw him on the street. He was homeless. The timing couldn’t be worse, a deep recession hit the land and the only job available was one he loathed to do, raising someone else’s pigs. The pay was so poor that he could hardly afford food. Sometimes he would even try eating the pig food to save a few coins. After weeks of this he came to his senses. He said to himself, “I’ve screwed up bigtime. This is not how it was supposed to turn out! How could I have been so stupid!” His thoughts went back home and to his father’s eyes. How sad they were the day he left home. “I could be such an idiot and he’d still love me,” he faintly smiled to himself. He thought of the time he crashed the truck and how his father would still let him drive the car around! “Man, he was the best dad a boy could have,” he knew it. “I wish I could go back, but how can I now? I’ve embarrassed the family name. But I’ll die of starvation here, maybe if I went back and asked him for a job. At least I know his employees have good food to eat and comfortable sleeping quarters. It’s a million times better than this squalor I’m living in now. I’ve got to go find my way back home even if I have to walk all the way back.”
And so he left on foot for home, all the while practicing what he would say to his father, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and I’ve sinned against you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But could you find it in your heart to let me live with the servants and I’ll work hard for you until I pay every cent back. I’ll get back on my feet.” He kept on repeating it, “I’m no longer worthy, no longer worthy, no longer worthy…” And the tears fell to the ground.
But while he was still a long way off his father saw his silhouette. He knew right away that it was his younger son. His heart raced as he leapt to his feet and ran and ran through the fields towards his son. When he came upon him he threw out his arms and embraced him and kissed him over and over. The son was so overwhelmed he had been expecting the worse, he expected his father to say, “Why are you even here?” “Dad, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.” But he couldn’t finish his speech, he just crumpled into his father’s embrace crying, “I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.”
The father called out for his servants explaining his boy had finally returned. “Quick”, he said, “Go get him a clean robe, some shoes, and the family ring. And oh, lets not forget the celebration, tonight, yes, invite everyone you can, prepare the best food, and don’t forget to kill the fattened calf! At long last my son is home!!!!!
That evening the guests arrived and while the feast was being served and the music played. the older brother had just come back from a long day in the fields. When he heard the music from afar he wondered what he had missed. When one of the servants told him it was his younger brother come home, he refused to go in. “Get me my father,” he barked, “ I need to talk to him, NOW!”
And when the father came out to greet him he saw how angry his oldest son was and asked him why he was so upset. “How could you do it, Dad? How could you let yourself be duped by this rotten so-called-son of yours, not just once, but twice! He’s a freaking dishonour to the family name! I can’t believe you are actually feasting and celebrating in his honour!” There was a long pause as the father looked him in the eyes, but the older son turned from his regard. And then the son let it all out, “I’ve been slaving for you all these years. I’ve done everything you asked me to, and more! You never had to worry a single minute about my whereabouts. And did you ever throw a party for me? Not even once, Dad! What’s wrong with that picture!”
The father put his hands on his son’s shoulders and looked directly at his angry boy, “Look at me son. We are all in this together. Everything I have is yours. Everything, yours! That will never change. But this my son, your little brother, was lost. We thought he was gone forever, but now, thank God, he’s back. Can’t you see, he was as good as dead to us, but he’s alive and at home at last! Come on in, please,” and nodding his head yes the father added, “And he’s excited to see you, too. Let’s welcome him back home together.” With this the father gently kissed him, but the older boy just stood there shaking his head, staring off into the distance.
*This is the famous story that has been called the prodigal son that Jesus told. I’ve paraphrased it to make it sound more 2019 ish. I’ve given it a title, but if you could suggest a better title for it, I’d like for you comment. I’ll ‘subjectively’ pick what I think is the best one. Thank you.
The world of humanity is fractured. All of us, at some time or other, have contributed to the problem. We are a divided bunch. Chalk it up to our upbringing with it’s differing cultural values and education. Or blame the media for it’s fear mongering and biases. Even the varied climates and geographical terrains can and have shaped people’s lives and responses to the outer world. But perhaps our take on politics, race and religion is the greatest fracture-factor in the deepening of divisions. You would think at least religion would bring us closer as brothers and sisters in the human family.
I have visited Sri Lanka often over the years. I can still remember the many sandbag checkpoints throughout the capital city of Colombo with soldiers toting machine guns. At each checkpoint our driver would have to stop and produce papers and be questioned by the soldiers as to where and who was in the car. A few times I tried to speak some Sinhala, but never got as much as a smile. Those were tense times! The country was deeply divided among ethnic lines. Though the war was officially declared over in 2009, tensions remained over politics and religion. Even those of the same religion or denomination had a hard time getting along! When feelings get hurt, there is resentment. Where there is favoritism, there will be jealousy and envy. We become so childish that we no longer have the maturity to apply wisdom to the situations that occur. And you know what? All the sermonising in the world won’t make a difference!
So what will?
Well, before I get there let me tell you what won’t change our world, in fact I can guarantee these two evil twins will make our world worse: they are hatred and revenge. The late Maya Angelou once wrote, “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” Think about that! The problem as I see it with hatred is that if we hate those who hate, we now become haters like them. It’s like trying to build a positive building on a negative foundation. Will that building really be positive and can it stand when the hatred in its various forms comes towards us? We cannot perpetually attempt to make our world a better place with the practices of hatred, violence and exclusion and think we can remain innocent ourselves. All manners of hatred simply generate new manners of hatred. Yes, we do need to hold responsible all those who do evil. Their ways are loathsome and diabolical. We do not close our eyes to their evil crimes against the human race. But to become haters ourselves only leads to more hate and revenge.
So, here we are again faced with the awful Easter Day terror attacks in Sri Lanka. The fatalities keep rising and thousands of people are adversely affected, a whole country in mourning. The latest revelations say that what occurred was the result of revenge attacks to avenge the fifty who were killed in a Christchurch mosque by one hateful shooter. It’s the same lousy narrative we have been hearing over and over in our world since time began. Friends, we need to break this cycle of hatred. It won’t be broken by nice words, Facebook posts, or as I’ve said, by sermonizing. It can only happen by an opposite force that recreates our way of thinking and identity.
Darkness will not lift the darkness. Only love can overcome hate! Now you may think I am getting all ‘religiousy’ with you here, but hear me out. I am a follower of Jesus. That’s not a secret. So let me talk about Him for a moment. Jesus came with a message of love, reconciliation and a new kind of kingdom paradigm. When He started to speak publically it began with a call to ‘repent’ and that had more to do with rethinking everything, our perspectives on God, on blessing and our responses to evil and hatred. The word repent, you see, had not as much to do with crying for our past mistakes as rethinking our future. (Although crying once in awhile over our mistakes might be a healthy thing to do!!!) When He cleansed people of ‘unclean spirits’ (however we understand that term) and made the lepers clean, His aim was to reintegrate the excluded into the human community.
Another observation of the life of Jesus was that His love knew no boundaries. Think of that. He wanted to break the walls of exclusion, recreate us all, regardless of culture, background, geography and the like, into a family. And that is why he little trouble hanging with ‘sinners,’ prostitutes, tax-collectors, and all manner of people. I am sure that if His mandate happened to be in our day He would have lots of LGBTQ friends, refugee and homeless friends. You may not like that, but that just the truth of the matter. His was a message of a purity of heart and learning to see God in all places and people. His hardest command was to love our enemies. Can you imagine how that went over in a culture where destroying the enemy was a spiritual duty!
In the end the greatest question could be, “Did Jesus live out His own words, you know loving even the enemy?” Well, that’s the Easter story you are asking about. The story of His betrayal, the trumped charges, the mocking, and the torturous crucifiction would shout out yes! While the nails ripped through His flesh, hear Him pray aloud, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If we could learn to love our enemy and bless those who curse us, and stop calling others ‘idiots and heretics’ it would nip so much bad stuff in the bud! We don’t know what will be the end of the story in Sri Lanka, will the church with resurrection life rise above rhetoric that divides and live into the newness of a life that loves? My hope is, and it is the hope of all who are born of love, is this will be the church’s finest moment in Sri Lanka.
Have you ever found yourself labeling those different from you? We all do it at some time or another. We have biases that we have learned, unconsciously accumulated and are mostly unaware of. These biases have snuck in the backdoor and now we see whole people groups as labels. These labels fuel our fears pressing us to avoid certain kinds of people and seek the company of those who are more like us. Studies confirm that we trust more easily people with the same skin colour as us. They are pointing out the truth of unconscious biases.
The challenge confronting us is to remove the lens of labels and change the way we see. We begin by examining our hearts to see if we indeed harbour fears and biases. This is no easy task for biases often disguise themselves as concern. It goes a little like this: We are concerned for the safety of our country, our families, and our future. “If we let all these people in they will make it worse for all of us!”
So here’s my thought when it comes to the mass of humanity so different from you and I fleeing their countries and arriving on our shores: Realize from the start that these refugee populations crossing mountains and seas are enamored with very same concerns that you and I have. These concerns are what compels them to leave their countries, homes and families. They just want to live safe. That is why, in many cases, their fathers, mothers and extended family love them so much that they urge them to flee and find safety and a better future in some far off land. Sometimes they do leave together as a family. Many times they get separated. Other times one child is sent off with hopes high for the entire family. I think of H. who left brother, sister and parents in Aleppo at the request of the family. Miraculously all his family survived and he too of the horrendous journey to Germany! He is safe. His future is secure. His family can breathe a sigh of relief.
You see, they all did not leave solely because of the bombs or persecution or poverty. They did not leave, as in the case of many, because of the pressure that gangs exert on their children to join. Those factors admittedly played a part, but it goes deeper than that! It is a desire to find safety that compels them and thus a better future for the ones they love most. That’s all. When you hear it like that you realize that these souls sound a lot like us! Maybe we can now see through new eyes knowing we have more in common with the refugee than we thought?
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you breath bloody in their throats the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you fire under feet hot blood in your belly it’s not something you ever thought of doing until the blade burnt threats into your neck and even then you carried the anthem under your breath only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets sobbing as each mouthful of paper made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land no one burns their palms under trains beneath carriages no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled means something more than journey. no one crawls under fences no one wants to be beaten pitied
no one chooses refugee camps or strip searches where your body is left aching or prison, because prison is safer than a city of fire and one prison guard in the night is better than a truckload of men who look like your father no one could take it no one could stomach it no one skin would be tough enough
the go home blacks refugees dirty immigrants asylum seekers sucking our country dry niggers with their hands out they smell strange savage messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up how do the words the dirty looks roll off your backs maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender than fourteen men between your legs or the insults are easier to swallow than rubble than bone than your child body in pieces. i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home told you to quicken your legs leave your clothes behind crawl through the desert wade through the oceans drown save be hunger beg forget pride your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying- leave, run away from me now i dont know what i’ve become but i know that anywhere is safer than here.