St Edmund's Episcopal Church San Marino

American Welcome

This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on December 1st, 2015.

During my childhood and youth, Thanksgiving was almost always at the home of my paternal grandparents in Ohio. Family came from the Eastern seaboard, from Florida and next door Pennsylvania. Fires blazed in the fireplace, and I played endless games of football with my cousins between the walnut trees on the back acreage. After dinner, we would stroll through Brookside Country Club, brown in the early winter, not a golfer in sight.

My recollection of those gatherings must be idealized, and in the gender-specific roles of those days and of my family, I now wonder where my grandmother got all her cheer and kindness during what must have been a marathon of preparation! As prayer was made before dinner, blessings were recounted, thanks for Faith and nation offered, and gratitude made palpable.

Welsh Aunt Liz was at table, and sometimes she would speak in Welsh with my grandmother, who retained more than a smattering from the childhood home of her immigrant parents. My grandfather’s parents had come from England. On that side of my family there was keen awareness of a not-so-distant immigrant past.

This Thanksgiving, I mused over some of my compatriots and at much of our political leadership, in such haste to retreat from the welcoming stance which is our civic patrimony. The words inscribed on the foundation of the Statue of Liberty, that emblematic gift from the French, should hold firmer grip:

New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I am personally saddened to know that something like 30 governors have declared the migrants fleeing chaos in Syria to be unwelcome within the states under their charge, and that the House of Representatives has voted to suspend Syrian immigration at a time of grave international need. This recalls some of the worst days of our collective history, when, in 1938 nearly 70% of Americans were opposed to giving Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany a home in the United States. The number of Jewish immigrants admitted into the United States increased gradually during the 1930s through the efforts of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, an active Episcopalian celebrated on May 13th in the Episcopal Church calendar commemorating saints and holy men and women. Perkins had an uphill climb. The fear was that the Jewish exodus, with so many ties to Germany, would form a dangerous “fifth column” within the U.S.

Fear animated resistance to Chinese immigration in California, and animated the World War II era internment camps to which Japanese-American citizens were consigned. The desperate immigrants fleeing carnage and want in Syria arouse like worries for many. But the United States proposes to grant shelter to a minuscule number of these migrants (too few, by my lights), following extraordinary scrutiny (18 months at present). Resettled refugees do not seem the most likely avenue of threat from those who may wish us ill.

Now swift on the heels of Thanksgiving comes Advent. During the Advent Season Christians make ready for the birth of the infant Jesus, born to parents displaced from Nazareth, and, in the child’s infancy, forced to flee to Egypt; a terrorized refugee family on the run. Our nation’s heritage and shared ideals might summon us to rethink our worst fears, uncross our folded arms, and offer warm embrace to those under duress. Francis Perkins reminds us of the importance of strong moral leadership in our inevitable national disputes, and people of good will might pray for more of her moxie just now.