Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 13, 2004
You are the king's sons, daughters
Our immigrants, refugees deserve to be treated with sanctity, humanity
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
The following story emphasizes the beauty and importance of empowerment:
Once upon a time there was a country ruled by a king. The country was invaded and the king was killed, but his children were rescued by servants and hidden away. The smallest, an infant daughter, was reared by a peasant family. They didn't know she was the king's daughter. She had become the peasant's daughter and she dug potatoes and lived in poverty.
One day, an old woman came out of the forest and approached the young woman who was digging potatoes. The old woman asked her: "Do you know who you are?"
And the young woman said, "Yes, I'm the farmer's daughter and a potato digger." The old woman said: "No, no, you are the daughter of the king."
And the potato digger said: "I'm the daughter of the king?" "Yes, that's who you are!" And the old woman disappeared back into the forest.
After the old woman left, the young woman still dug potatoes but she dug them differently. It was the way she held her shoulders and it was the light in her eyes because she knew who she was.
She knew she was the daughter of the king.
The first principle of Christian social teaching is the affirmation of the dignity of the human person, created in the image of God, capable of knowing and loving the Creator, and entrusted with a stewardship of the earth. That dignity belongs to every human person - without exception - though it is often not recognized.
That dignity is the source of the basic rights of migrants: to life and a means of livelihood, to cultural identity, to a family, to social and political life, and to work befitting a human person.
Migration today is often a question of survival, leaving little distinction between refugees and migrants, legals and illegals; their common denominator is necessity. Welcoming migrants and realizing communion with them mirrors the will of the Father, who embraces all in his love.
The migrants' fragile situations of social and cultural uprooting, legal problems, and insecurity about even the basic necessities of life calls on believers to open their hearts and pay greater attention to their needs. Our solidarity and burden sharing involves more than providing "things", migrants are looking above all for understanding and acceptance, liberation from what weighs them down, and support for their desire to improve their lives.
Being sensitive to others in the abstract sounds lovely. However, in reality, it can be quite difficult even in Canada. The natural temptation today for most of us is to pull back, concentrate on our own needs, and deal with our own worries, insecurities and daily stresses.
In fact, a new hostility towards refugee claimants seems to be emerging.
"People shouldn't be allowed to hide anywhere," Immigration Minister Judy Sgro recently told the Canadian Press. "Nobody is exempt from the law."
This is a classic case of a blind guide "straining out gnats and swallowing camels" (Matthew 23:23).
Regrettably, the immigration minister and many other Ottawa politicians really do not understand the scope and the complexity of religious communities in Canada, nor do they take the religious community seriously.
Several individual churches across Canada, I believe the number is six or seven so far this year, far less than even one per cent of the number of churches in the country, have offered their buildings as sanctuaries to protect individuals and families who have not been recognized as refugees.
Nevertheless, they appear to be at real risk of persecution if Canada returned them to their countries of origin. Helping the stranger in need is central to the Christian faith but the seeking and granting of sanctuary is hardly a daily occurrence.
At the same time, the biblical tradition affirms that laws are necessary to achieve justice, which includes ensuring that governments fulfill their legal and moral obligations to protect and defend life.
Hence it is only when faced with a person whose refugee claim appears to have been rejected in error and/or whose life appears to be at risk that some churches felt compelled by conscience to offer sanctuary, providing the protection denied by the Canadian government. This is not the first option, but rather the least desirable one. To take refuge in a church is a desperate act.
Churches that decide to provide sanctuary do so in order to protect human life and because they have reason to believe that errors have occurred in a flawed system.
Two major flaws
Two of the major flaws in our current system are that a single decision-maker now grants or rejects refugee status, and the failure to implement an appeal process that Parliament felt necessary when it adopted the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. There is no mechanism to correct errors.
The sanctity of a church building may not be a legal right in Canada, but there is a centuries old tradition of respect for it by authorities in our society.
Over the years, respect for the sanctity of religious space has saved lives and prevented injustices. It has provoked sober second thought by the authorities about the legitimacy of laws and practices. When Christians believe that life is at risk because of a flawed system, the traditions of fairness and compassion must be upheld.
We must tell people who they are. We must go from place to place saying to the dispossessed and to the lonely and the downtrodden, "Do you know who you are? You are the sons and daughters of the king!"
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