Friday, May 19
Since the recent increase in anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment, many of us have found ourselves thinking more than usual of our grandparents and great grandparents. At the turn of the 20th century, my paternal grandparents left Eastern Europe for the United States, found themselves in Northern Minnesota, met, married, reared a family and never returned to their country of origin. Their ethnic group (Slovenian) was not particularly welcomed or respected there among the majority who had arrived earlier from Scandinavia, but they worked hard and educated their children to rise into business and the professions in their new-found nation. They were enthusiastic Americans, forever proud that their sons, and two of their daughters had volunteered for the armed services during World War II.
Many of us have these sorts of complicated family tales, so when I was asked to write about two large banners recently attached to the exterior walls of Trinity Church in Lenox, I agreed. The large but not huge, black and white signs — one facing Walker Street and the other around the corner facing Kemble — read as follows:In the 19th Century, my mother’s ancestors had fled wars and a potato famine to find refuge and better lives in the United States. They had varied experiences here. In Titusville, Pennsylvania, Grandmother Hughes’s family struck oil in the backyard and quickly moved to the Philadelphia Mainline. Her mother and father were scandalized when my Kansas City grandfather, the son of immigrants said he wanted to marry her, but they finally relented, and eventually that grandfather, J. Will Kelley founded a magazine, served in the Missouri State Legislature, and became a successful publisher. He grew to be so American that in his turn, he was initially suspicious of my own father’s foreign-sounding last name.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” — Matthew 25:35
We welcome refugees and immigrants,”
“You shall love your neighbors as yourself. — Leviticus 8:19, Mark 12:13
We welcome refugees and immigrants.”
Succinct and simple. And some might say, subversive. How had they come to be? At the Trinity Parish Annual Meeting in January, a young parent in the congregation had stood up and proposed that the church go on record to support refugees and immigrants. A discussion followed and another parishioner said Trinity ought to support the needy closer to home — for example, those out of work in Appalachia. Someone else suggested it was possible to support them all, but that the refugee and immigrant populations were the ones presently under attack. Arguments were pointed but respectful. In the end a vote was taken, and the yeses for putting up signs expressing solidarity with refugees and immigrants won.
On the day of my visit to the Trinity Church office, the signs had been mounted for over a week. It had rained on and off for hours but the weather had finally settled on watery sunshine when I arrived to interview the Rector, the Reverend Michael Tuck, about them. He had been surprised by the proposal, but he told me he believes that when people of any era endure the extreme difficulties of leaving families, friends, and all that is familiar for the unknown challenges and certain discomforts of emigrating to a foreign country, things at home “must be really bad.” He reminded me that all of us who are not Native Americans are descendants of immigrants, and referring again to the signs, added, “The least we can do for refugees and immigrants is assure them of a peaceful place to pray.”
I asked what the general reaction to the signs had been so far.
“Sometimes I wonder how the town of Lenox and greater Berkshire County view Trinity Church,” he answered. “We have a beautiful, historic stone building, and except for the kids on the lawn at our Harry Potter Vacation Bible School, we’re pretty quiet. A few may be surprised that we’ve been so public in our support of immigrants and refugees. But after all, our understanding of the scriptures, scriptures we consider inspired by God, tells us to welcome all people in all circumstances as fellow human beings. As part of our Outreach Program, we quietly help families provide for themselves at Thanksgiving and Christmas; we collect groceries, toiletries, and warm clothing for other neighbors, and respond to needs for diapers and personal products at the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Pittsfield. Recently, we’ve built schools in Africa and sent school supplies and stuffed animals to children in Syria. Now we’ve put up these signs. It’s not much, but it’s something. So far, I’ve received questions, but no negative comments.”
When I left the parish office to re-read the banners, it was drizzling again, and gusts of wind pulled at their edges. A group of people across the street raced from their car to their house without paying me or the signs any special attention. But quiet as those signs are, they are not invisible, and they are assertive. Trinity Church, Lenox is contributing visually to what we are thinking about and wrestling with. Its signs are becoming part of the conversation, and like our individual family histories, it will become part of the on-going story.