My early formation in the church and in faith was strongly shaped by the experience of showing compassion and hospitality to refugees. My home church, Trinity Lutheran in Galesburg, Illinois, sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family in the late 1970's boat people crisis. The church helped them get a home, find work, adjust to the strange world of the midwest and its harsh winters, and make them feel as welcome as could be. Financial support coupled with time and gentle guidance meant this family could start a new life from the fragments of their lives that remained after fleeing their homeland in the face of unspeakable suffering.
My best friend, Rodney, and I stopped by one day to visit them and deliver a gift to welcome them. Their modest rent house was humbly and adequately furnished with donated furniture, much of it the then out-of-fashion mid-century modern stuff everyone was getting rid of for the awful stuff that passed as furniture in the 1970's. They greeted us with big smiles, warm handshakes, an effervescent gratitude, and almost no English. The family consisted of the older parents (I'm guessing they were in their 60's), an adult son, Binh, and daughter, Huong, and their cousin (forgive me, I can't recall his name).
The mother immediately had us sit down and eat whatever she was cooking. We couldn't tell what it was. Everything smelled strongly of garlic. After losing our inhibitions about eating "strange" food, we enjoyed it. Everytime we returned, the same thing happened. Eat, eat. Huong and Binh were very interested in learning more English. They had some immediate questions for us about certain words and phrases. We stayed about an hour and helped them figure some things out. They asked us to come back soon.
We came back the following week after school. We helped them with some more English and their questions about the puzzling things of American culture. We decided to come back weekly and help them learn more and more English. They often wrote down questions in a stenographer pad waiting for us to return and figure out what new words or strnage phrases they had encountered. We asked them to teach us some Vietnamese in return. We kept our notes and worked on the tonal sounds of the language. Not much stuck, but we did learn a few insults we could secretly hurl at teachers when the moment felt it needed it.
Christmastime that year was a crazy wild winter. Snow piled up to three feet. I worked my paper route and got frost bite on my cheek. I gave it up that spring. The refugee family struggled with the bitter cold and shoveling snow, a chore that can break a person. We weren't quite sure if they celebrated Christmas, if they knew much of Christianity at all, or what they knew about the American explosion of sentiment and materialism in late December. But they seemed ready to share in it.
My mother had a tradition of having an open house on Christmas Eve. Family and friends would stop by our small two bedroom apartment. My mother baked and cooked for days making fudge, divinity (if the weather cooperated), cookies, toffee, and more. Cheese balls and dips and punch. Mysterious mixed drinks for adults. Hot chocolate for kids. Candles everywhere. In my childhood experience at Christmas, other than the midnight candlelight worship service, this was the magic of the holiday. It was my mother pouring out her heart of love and hospitality in a way that made her feel she was honoring her parents and her self, a humble woman full of extravagant love.
To our complete surprise, he started playing and singing Silent Night. We sat and listened and wept and felt quiet awe. Some of us joined in singing when we could get some words out from our choked up throats. In the quiet candle glow of that evening, in that song, in the hospitality of my beautiful and now long dead mother, refugees changed my life. Of course they did. They knew better than we that we are all refugees, and Christmas is a story of good news for all who long for home, and who have not given up finding it again. It is a story of motherly hospitality that is God's open door to us, no matter what boat we arrived on, no matter how foreign we feel. It is that refugee Christmas when I learned: God is not the gate keeper of the promised land as much as the one who travels with us and fills us with a song of love and joy no matter where we are.