Perhaps not since that fleeting moment of national unity in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy nearly 13 years ago have so many diverse faith traditions, from Catholic bishops to Quakers, from evangelical Christians to liberal Jews, come together with such genuine fervor on any public issue.
The "backlash to the backlash" on the U.S. border crisis has now begun.
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America have recently slipped into the United States seeking refuge in a horrific storm. This many young kids don't leave home on a long, desperate, parentless journey for no reason. Many are escaping gang brutality, instigated partly by hard-core drug lords, who've left U.S. prisons and returned home to stir up more trouble and intimidation.
It's difficult to imagine what these children anticipated upon entering the United States. Almost no new arrival is ever really prepared for the whirlwind and sheer crassness of American culture.
But they can't have been expecting the visceral vitriol that greeted some of these young refugees. The boiling-over rage that coarses through so much of our debate on public issues abruptly confronted these frightened children -- unsophisticated strangers in a strange land. Anti-immigration activists angrily opposed even establishing shelters for vulnerable kids far from home.
There was an apparent inability to distinguish legitimate public discourse over immigration policy (long ginned up on all sides for political gain) from an actual humanitarian crisis involving children draped under Red Cross blankets, right here, right now. Emma Lazarus' torch seemed to be temporarily extinguished.
But a different view was expressed last week by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who got audibly choked up delivering a public announcement that his state would shelter hundreds of children while they're being processed. A military base on Cape Cod is one venue being considered.
A state homeland security official later said he anticipated the children would be between six- and 17-years-old staying an average of 35 days. Most would likely be released to relatives in the United States, he explained, while others would eventually face deportation.
Said Governor Patrick: "My faith teaches that if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him but rather love him as yourself." And this was from a publicly secular governor, hardly known for wearing his private beliefs on his sleeve. For Deval Patrick, nearing the end of his eight years in office, it appears to be simply a matter of human conscience. "It bears remembering they're children and they're alone."
Yet his proposal has met with a roar of protest from some quarters -- including residents of towns neighboring the base, who attended a meeting of Bourne, Massachusetts local officials this week. One woman, living in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, held a banner that read: "Send them back. They broke the law."
At Patrick's public statement, he was flanked by Boston-area clergy. The faith community nationwide, which should be the natural habitat for discussion of basic decency and human compassion, is now speaking up with remarkable unity over how the United States should handle the refugee crisis.
Last week, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote: "I watched with shame as an angry mob in southern California surrounded buses filled with frightened, hungry, homeless immigrants, shaking fists, and shouting for them to "get out!'"
As reported yesterday in The New York Times: "'We're talking about whether we're going to stand at the border and tell children who are fleeing a burning building to go back inside,' said Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, who said leaders of more than 100 faith organizations in his city had met last week to discuss how to help."
Believers as diverse as Unitarians and Lutherans are coming together on this moral question. "The anger directed toward vulnerable children is deplorable and disgusting," said Russell Moore, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention, who this week accompanied fellow churchmen to visit refugee centers in Texas.
"The first thing is to make sure we understand these are not issues, these are persons. These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, not with fear."
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