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Rev. Charles Gibbs Headshot

Those Whose Stories We Have Not Heard

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On July 4, 1976, America was swept up in the excitement of our bicentennial. Millions watched a flotilla of tall ships from 14 countries sail past the Statue of Liberty into the New York Harbor against the backdrop of the Twin Towers, and a profusion of rockets' red glare flowered in the night sky across America.

My wife and I were living in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota that year, and I remember the theme of the Independence Day celebration there as "An Ethnic 4th of July." Our celebration of 200 years of freedom was a celebration of the diversity of cultures that had flowered in our part America's heartland.

In a country and world that is today so deeply divided -- by race, religion, language, class and culture -- perhaps we should consider a new celebration of the flowering of diverse cultures, this time as a much-needed reminder of our common humanity.

The past 35 years have witnessed unprecedented human migration, not only into and within the United States, but all over the world. The United Nations Development Programme's 2009 Human Development Report counted 214 million international migrants (of which an estimated 42 million live in the U.S.) and 740 million internal migrants.

These numbers point to an extraordinary dislocation, to untold human tragedy as well as triumph. And they beg the questions: Why do people move? Why do they choose to leave behind their lives as they've known them? Their families? Their language? Their culture?

Fear and hope are the two most obvious motivators. Fear of war, of famine, of persecution and, increasingly, of environmental cataclysm. Hope for peace, acceptance, education and economic opportunity, for human dignity and the opportunity to flourish. And, yes, for freedom. When people run out of hope or are filled with fear, it's a natural human impulse to flee in the direction of less fear, to move in the direction of more hope.

The question we must ask ourselves, as an immigrant society for which "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are among the highest goods, is how are we treating those who -- like our own ancestors before them -- have fled to our shores?

I recently returned from a conference in Morocco focused on the role of interfaith cooperation in immigrant integration. Hosted by the Middle East and North Africa region of URI (United Religions Initiative), the conference brought together 50 (mostly young) leaders from across the region as well as from Europe. They were Palestinians and Israelis, Egyptians and Jordanians, Romanians, Germans and more, grappling together with an issue that has touched each and every one of their countries and communities as viscerally as it has touched our own.

Acknowledging that solutions to the extraordinarily complex and interlocking issues around human migration also require the actions of governments, both individually and collectively, these young leaders asked what they, as people of diverse faiths, cultures and nationalities could do to improve the realities immigrants faced on the ground in their respective countries.

They wrestled the issues of mutual fear and distrust, of negative stereotyping and scapegoating, of social, educational and economic marginalization, of language barriers, and the challenges of religious and cultural differences. In reflecting on current efforts in parts of Europe to ban Muslim women from wearing head scarves in public, one young Christian woman recalled growing up around Christian nuns who wore long robes, with only their faces peeking out from their veils. Why was that OK, she wondered, but it's not OK for Muslim women to wear veils?

And if there was one issue that surfaced again and again -- fear of the "other" -- there was also one solution that surfaced again and again: create opportunities for people to come to know each other in their every day lives, not as "others" but as fellow human beings, as citizens of the Earth.

"An enemy," wrote Quaker peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman, "is one whose story we have not heard." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most popular American poet of the 19th century, shared the same sentiment when he wrote: "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

In the midst of this conference, I recalled the traditional greeting a dear Mayan friend has often shared: "You are in me and I am in you." This is an essential perspective to hold when we think about how we welcome immigrants into the fold of our communities. A critical part of our work, whether we consider ourselves immigrants or natives to our countries and communities, is to listen to one another's stories and to recognize in them the common humanity that binds us.

While governments struggle with a tangle of complex issues, on a human level we can reach out to those different from us and begin to weave a community that cherishes and celebrates diversity once again. Perhaps, after this 4th of July, with the Twin Towers no longer standing but with the Statue of Liberty still raising the torch of hope above America, we can be our own tall ships, bringing a commitment of new humanity to this country and to the world.

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