My husband and I just returned from a family visit to Southern California. Everyplace we went, I was struck by how diverse the people were. In our Best Western breakfast room, I heard three languages being spoken. Taking a granddaughter to the Los Angeles Zoo, our white-skinned family was in the minority, with lots of Latino families enjoying their outings, alternating between Spanish and English as they talked and laughed. Asian families oohed and aahed at the magnificent elephants and the barking meerkats, just as we did, only in other tongues.
It feels really different from Idaho, where we mostly meet white, English-speaking people in our daily living. And yet, the Southern California mix of skin colors and languages probably reflects the world’s future better than the demographics here in our state.
It also embodies one of our country’s serious problems. We live in a time of encouraged intolerance. We live in a time when fear of “the other” is expressed freely, where it is OK to speak as though European-Americans have the only claim to our country. We live in a time when there is talk of walls to keep people out, when lies are told about refugees and immigrants, a time when “welcome” is simply not part of the vocabulary. Follow the news and letters to the editor of the Twin Falls Times-News, for instance, and hear incredibly mean-spirited rhetoric about the excellent refugee settlement program of that community.
Where is the religious voice in all this? For that matter, where is the voice of human compassion and understanding?
The Hebrew Scriptures exhort us to welcome strangers, for by doing that sometimes we entertain angels unawares. The Christian Scriptures are full of embracing words, words about feeding and taking care of “the least of these.” The Quran tells us to do good, “to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler…” One of the foundations of Buddhist ethics is reaching out to the stranger, sharing what you have.
And it doesn’t have to be religious. How about simply looking at the Golden Rule? How about reflecting on what it must be like to be a stranger in a strange land — as many of our foremothers and forefathers were — and treating “the other” as we would like be treated? Respect would be a good start. Paying attention to those who seem different from us, just person-to-person attention, would ease the unease of our strangers. Refraining from outrage would be a fine idea.
Yes, the immigration and refugee issues have political implications and are, indeed, more complicated than simply behaving humanely to those who are different. We can help work toward decent solutions to those, attending to what our government is doing. We can do as the Magic Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has done, sponsoring an African refugee family.
And — doable by all of us — we can contribute to a general change in the tone of our conversations about the “strangers” in our land. We can remember our highest spiritual and ethical values. We can learn about customs different from ours; we can learn other languages. (Something English speakers do a lot less than many other speakers.)
We can look at the little Mexican-American kids laughing at the antics of the giraffes in the zoo, seeing that they are just like our kids. We can see the family with the shrieking baby — the family in unfamiliar, brightly-colored African clothes — and recall the exasperation and love of being a parent, an aunt or uncle, a godparent, a close friend of one of those bundles of joy.
We can let go of our fear, our discomfort. We can enrich ourselves by learning about others. We can open our hearts and live our highest values. We can help heal this division-encouraged world, by living and loving in the knowledge that we are all people, bound by our common humanity.
May it be so.
The Rev. Elizabeth Greene is minister emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at email@example.com.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.