“Our country has the duty to respect this commitment.” So said French President Francois Hollande, on France’s decision to welcome 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years (including an investment of 50 million euro to support housing for refugees). What of our commitment, American Congress?
Surely Emma Lazarus is weeping.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
It’s so hard to know what to share, what to do, how to help.
Scratch that. It’s not hard at all.
The “right thing” is right in front of us. And I get so flippin’ angry I can barely stand it, at the rhetoric and xenophobia that pass for politics.
In 1998, when we barely had dial-up email, I wrote a letter and sent it to everyone I knew, feeling desperate to do something about the genocide in Kosovo. “The Kosovo Fund,” as I called it, raised several hundred dollars, which I sent to the Red Cross for Bosnian aid. A drop in the bucket, but better than watching the news and wringing my hands at home, thousands of miles from the conflict.
This weekend, the girls and I cleared out our closets of blankets we no longer use, then spent $23 at the dollar store and put together bags to keep in the car for those in need on the street, with socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, and the like. This idea came from Mani, whose youngest is doing a blanket drive through her church in Phoenix as the desert nights grow cold. And then, within our own borders, a closer-to-home refugee crisis with so many risking and losing their lives crossing the Mexican border due to desperate circumstances.
It’s easy to feel distraught and powerless in the face of global refugee crises, climate change, institutional racism, women earning $.76 to the dollar, corporate arrogance, and phenomenally hateful and ignorant people running for U.S. President. It’s easy to feel so crushed by one “issue” that all the others come rushing in. On the flip side, it’s easy to shut down. The world is simply beyond repair, it seems.
But our work here is the same as it’s ever been: Not to go numb, at least not for good. Tikkun Olam in Hebrew means “Repair the World,” and this is our mandate. It’s not optional, and it’s not about feeling good. It’s about justice, and the great mystery of the shattered vessels. On the other hand, we’re commanded to give joyfully; our interdependence and mutual responsibility for each other and for the planet are neither to be taken lightly nor as a burden.
This makes sense to me on such a visceral level that I grasp for words to describe the ache and breaking I so often feel when I look at the faces of children — locally, nationally, globally — who will be trafficked into destitution and prostitution, slave wages (if any), dangerous conditions, and the despair of being displaced from home and family.
This, even as we are also working to take care of our own needs and desires, which are also legitimate and very, very real. Providing for my own children is nothing to sneeze at; in fact, it must be my number one priority to care for those I brought here, and doing so is a blessing.
Some days I feel like all I do is pray and/or give thanks, for every dollar I earn, for every kind exchange I experience with someone, for every bill I am able to pay, for every meal I cook or purchase. Their privileges are many, and they also live near extended family whose means and generosity enable them to experience things far beyond my financial abilities.
And I worry. I have relatively few big fears, but one of them offers me the drive to model for my kids that we are responsible for each other as human beings, no matter where we’re from, what we believe, or how we live.
I pray that they learn this and carry it into their own lives. How do I teach them, without them feeling lectured, berated, and shamed? I don’t see these as great teachers, and yet sometimes I feel like that’s exactly how things come across, on the occasions that I’m exasperated by material expectations.
We go out of our way to stop at a red light in a turning lane, though we need to go straight and will ask the guy next to us if we can sneak in front of him. “Do you have any cash?” I ask V. I roll down the window, my teenager handing me a dollar or two from her own wallet to hand to the woman we see often on this particular median, with her backpack and her cardboard sign. I make eye contact, hand her the cash, and wish her a good day as she thanks us.
It’s not enough. And it’s everything for today. It’s a gesture, a start, an end. It’s making tzedakah–charitable giving based on the root word for “justice”–a condition of receiving allowance and other monetary gifts. It’s not feeling guilty for every little step we make, towards our home being as lovely, warm, inviting, bright, and beauty-filled as we dream. It’s having fun making a budget and choosing gifts for our five daughters (and each other!).
It’s saying thanks before we eat — and letting whatever my kids say be enough, even on the nights one of them says she is thankful for “forks and spoons” or “technology.” The point is the practice of it. The insistence on it. The reliance on awareness to come to life where it meets action.
Has there ever been an easy time in the world to raise kids? I doubt it. As a dear friend said on the phone last night,startling me with the truth of it: “Who isn’t hurting deep inside?” To hurt and to live with gratitude, joy, and empathy — now that is what I want to practice. I may not change the world, but I will die trying.
Help. Whom you can. When you can. Where you can. How you can.
And most of all: Because you can.