“The Stranger Within Our Gates”
by Larry Downing, September 14, 2015: Dr. Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin?, tells the story of a man who each day walked about the Chicago Loop. Every few feet he stopped, pointed his finger at an unsuspecting pedestrian and, in a loud, accusatory voice pronounced “GUILTY!” He then went on his way to confront another unsuspecting victim. Should I be one of the accused, I would have to agree with the verdict. I am guilty! I do not find solace in confessing my guilt, nor do I believe I am alone in this guilt, nor is there a point of pride that I now confess, nor is there a feeling of despair or self-loathing associated with the activating event that initiated my guilt. In simple words, my guilt is navel gazing! We experienced navel gazers have developed the fine art of looking at self. We have, like a laser beam, developed our ability to identify what we need to feel satisfied and what others are expected to do to fulfill our expectations. This gift of self-focus is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. It is important to hold people accountable and expect excellence from our leaders. We are chagrined when those in whom we have placed trust fail to live up to their responsibilities. We are correct in our disappointment when people neglect, or worse, reject the common values associated with human decency. But there is more to life than the attention we give to those events and actions that are so self-centered. It is at this point that my guilt grabs me.
While thousands of people flee for their lives as the travesty of war decimates their land and their lives, I have been occupied by the actions taken and promoted by my denomination’s administrators and leaders. I have agonized over the decision at the recent GC that, in an official action, voted that one gender is more acceptable to fill a sacerdotal function than another. While we were taken up by these parochial matters, countless men, women and children ventured forth on what is euphemistically called by the participants, The Road of Death. Thousands more will join the previous thousands who have died at sea, died on a trek across deserts, died at the hands of human smugglers, and died from hunger and thirst. And I gaze at my navel. Amazing!
It wasn’t always this way. When American lost the Vietnam War, thousands of people who had worked for the American government, were part of the South Vietnam military, or had other connections with American interests, were forced to leave their country. Many, like those who flee Syria, Sudan and other countries, died in their attempts to escape tyranny and war. Other people were more fortunate.
One of the major American entry ports for Vietnamese refugees was Indian Town Gap military base in central Pennsylvania. Indian Town Gap is located a few miles from Blue Mountain Academy, where the Pennsylvania Conference holds its annual camp meeting. When the first refugees arrived at Indian Town Gap, I, along with another pastor, was working to prepare for the hundreds of people who would soon fill the tents and school gym. When the local radio station announced that Vietnam refugees were arriving at the military base, I decided to visit the camp and see what was taking place.
I drove onto the base, parked, and began walking around. I introduced myself to a group of men and began a conversation. One of these individuals was a Vietnamese naval officer, Not just any officer – he was Admiral Cong, Admiral of the Vietnamese Navy. He informed me that he was sponsored by Admiral Zumwalt, head of the U. S. Navy, but several of his naval officers were in need of sponsorship. After several more visits and discussions, my wife and I agreed to sponsor one of his officers, his wife, and their three children.
At the time, I was president of the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Ministerial Association. I shared with the area pastors the need for refugee sponsors and the requirements for those who agreed to sponsor an individual or family. The decision was made to combine our resources and form a sponsorship group with a goal of sponsoring 100 families. My wife and I agreed to act as emergency housing facilitators. The community exceeded its 100-family goal. My wife and I, besides housing the navy officer, at various times housed four additional families.
What I can say is that during this experience there was little time for navel gazing. This was not a time to be concerned about the ruffles and turmoils that disturb ecclesiastical bodies. We were too occupied meeting with community businesspeople, asking them to hire our Vietnamese people. There were landlords to contact and contracts to negotiate and bank accounts to establish. And somehow, our navels got along without inspection!
I suggest that within the context of the now pressing refugee situation, we direct attention away from our parochial desires and needs and consider what responsible and helpful action we can take to alleviate an international human crisis, a crisis that, to a large extent, is a result of America’s policy and decisions.
The church is one of the most skilled and capable organizations in the world to address such issues, and the church is us! As of this day, September 10, 2015, government officials stated that by next year America is prepared to accept up to 8,000 Syrian refugees. Members of the Adventist church can step forward to facilitate this goal. We have an opportunity to offer refuge to men, women and children who have witnessed unimaginable violence, the shattering of social and family structures, the destruction of an ancient society and the ruination of a nation’s historic heritage. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Church World Service, Refugees Welcome, The Salvation Army, and other organizations one can find on the web are available to help groups or individuals begin the sponsorship process and provide on-going assistance and support.