For my birthday my wife Joy surprised me with a framed picture of my twenty-year-old mother Trudy. Someone had taken the photo aboard the ship that brought her to America. Doing some genealogical work while we were visiting Salt Lake City, Joy had come across that photograph and the passenger’s manifest of the Vulcania.
Traveling completely alone, my mother took the seventeen-hour train trip from Linz, Austria, to the port in Genoa, Italy. There, she boarded the Vulcania for a roughly three-week ocean crossing. Trudy’s possessions fit into a single flimsy suitcase. She arrived in New York City on October 29, 1949.
The word “cruise” suggests luxury. This trip was anything but that. The ship’s manifest lists my mother among those in Alien Tourist Class. Read that as steerage.
The photo captures her dining among dozens of other passengers in an unadorned, cramped compartment seemingly built to store cargo. The simple tables and the small chairs reminded me of lunch rooms from my middle school days. Plainly dressed diners sat elbow to elbow with their backs nearly touching the person at the table behind them.
My mother sits in the background. Even though people in the foreground may have been the photographer’s intended subject, Trudy’s determined profile and wavy brunette hair are unmistakable.
When I was twenty, going away to college seemed like a big move. Spring break trips with friends and study-abroad programs felt like adventures. Traveling all alone to a distant country with no job, no facility with the language, and no local support system would have been out of the question for me.
Then again, I had not survived daily Allied bombing and internment in a Nazi concentration camp. These experiences had forged my mother into sterner stuff than I was at the same age.
War’s indiscriminate slaughter and the Nazi state’s systematic violence against what it viewed as undesirable elements had bruised and battered Trudy’s soul and body. And yet her child-like humor refused to be extinguished. We would watch cartoons together and laugh out loud at episodes of “The Three Stooges.”
During my teen and young adult years, her insistence that other people were doing the best they could simply drove me crazy. By contrast, I did appreciate her ability to find reason to celebrate with sweets at the least provocation.
You might think that my mother was escaping the rubble of bombed-out Austria and fleeing the Soviet threat poised just across the Danube in her then-occupied hometown of Linz. And such thoughts must surely have played some part in her decision to make such a risky journey.
But I believe that it would be more accurate to say that my mother was inspired. Inspired by a dream of greater life.
When Trudy talked about immigrating to America, she never talked about getting rich or famous. She talked about being free.
As I look back on it, I realize that she wasn’t talking about civil rights. She was getting at something deeper and more abiding. In America she perceived a New World, a world redolent with the promise that she—and everyone in it—could become a fully human person.
I believe that my mother was swept along by a dream and a longing analogous to what the disciples experienced when the newly risen Jesus visited them in that locked room.
Here’s what John tells us.
The disciples are huddled in a locked room, hiding for fear of violence. Jesus appears. He sends them into the world and then breathes on them. The breathing thing is a little weird, but it’s crucial.
Jesus, you see, inspires them. They are moved not by the force of a command but by the excitement of inspiration. Look at the word “inspire.” Its roots mean to breathe in. To fill with breath.
Remember that God brought a heap of dust to life by breathing into it. Genesis calls that dust-man Adam.
Jesus breathes new life into his disciples. His resurrection animates them with the dream of a New World. A world where love dissolves hatred. Where compassion displaces fear of strangers. Where generosity eliminates deprivation and respect guards the dignity of all.
This is of course not the world we inhabit. At least not yet. And that is why Jesus sends them. He doesn’t tell them to wait around until he waves a magic wand. He inspires them to take the risky journey from the Old World they still inhabit toward the New World they long for.
That journey involves immense risk. Jesus puts it this way. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23)
In other words, the peace and reconciliation we dream of starts with us. It’s God’s dream, alright. We can’t get there without God. But God will only make this New World a reality through us.
We will get to a mended world only by stepping out toward it ourselves. Even in the midst of the pain and sorrow and violence that makes headlines every day. If we don’t forgive, forgiveness won’t happen. If we don’t seek reconciliation, reconciliation will never exist.
If we wait for others to be ready for forgiveness or we wait until it’s safe to offer reconciliation, they will never come to pass. In the crucifixion, Jesus himself showed us that getting to the New World is not for sissies. And yet, the promise of his resurrection is that our risks—though costly—will not be in vain.
My mother was not a theologian. She was an immigrant. An immigrant inspired to set sail for a new world. And strictly speaking, that’s what Jesus is inspiring us to be.
Check out my blog “Looking for God in Messy Places”