The recent and on-going terrorist attacks in Paris, Mali, Beirut and many other places continue to bring pain, sorrow and fear to all of us. Each day I offer prayers, first for those who have lost loved ones in such a tragic way, and then prayers for our whole world that God will help us find the way to peace. The path to international stability and justice is so very complicated and inflamed right now. We need God’s wisdom and strength to proceed ahead. Linked with our concerns about terrorism is the debate about whether we should allow Syrian refugees to enter the United States. Together with our ELCA Presiding Bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, I urge us to accept those refugees who are themselves fleeing the violence of extremists. It is appropriate and wise that refugees pass through a focused screening process to prevent the entrance of any with violent intent. In recent communication with our Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), I learned that the Syrian refugees applying for entrance go through a rigorous security screening involving the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies. Refugees are the most scrutinized and screened individuals to enter the U.S., passing through examination by seven agencies in a process that often takes two years to complete. LIRS is itself preparing to help resettle Syrian refugees that have passed through this extensive process. Unfortunately, many voices, including national and state leaders, have called for a complete halt to the entrance of Syrian refugees. On top of this, there is a wave of suspicion towards all the Muslim citizens and immigrants in our country, as people and news reports confuse all of Islam with the actions of a small percentage of violent extremists. I believe it would be a tragic mistake to close our borders and persecute Muslims within our country, for both historic and faith reasons. During World War II, there were fears about terrorism by Japanese immigrants living in the United States. These fears led, regrettably, to internment camps. Similar fears-also unfounded-existed about Germans fleeing Nazi Germany. Jews were denied visas, most notably the family of Anne Frank. On June 4, 1939, the passenger ship SS St. Louis, with more than 900 Jewish passengers on board, was turned away from Florida, and the ship returned to Europe. More than 250 of the passengers ultimately died in Nazi death camps. For all of these events, our nation has expressed sadness and remorse. It would be tragic to repeat the same mistake with Syrian refugees who are fleeing for their lives. However, it is most of all because of my Christian faith that I consider it wrong to close our borders to Syrians or to view all Muslim brothers and sisters as enemies. As we approach Christmas, how can we tell those seeking asylum that there is no room in the inn? As we remember how Joseph, Mary and Jesus, fleeing the violence of Herod, escaped to Egypt and found refuge there, how can we not offer refuge to others? A central part of Jesus’ teaching is compassion for those needing a safe place to live, “for I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.” (Matthew 25) A news photo this week showing a group in Olympia protesting the entrance of Syrians caught my attention. One of the protesters carried a sign saying, “Vets before refugees!” I recognize and agree with the pain that this sign expresses. Our country’s care for military personnel and vets has been inadequate and shameful. With all of the sacrifice and service that vets have given for our country, the support and care we give to them in health care and jobs should be ten times greater than it is. Therefore, I urge you to contact your state and national legislators and ask them for greater support for military personnel, families and vets. You can find congressional email addresses at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov. However, I would say that the protester’s sign only got it half right. We don’t need to choose just one or the other. We can care for both vets AND refugees. The heart of our faith and the soul of our nation lead us to do that. Therefore, when you contact your state and national legislators, I urge you to also ask them to support the entrance of Syrian refugees and to guard against any blanket condemnation of Islamic people. I am certain that the vast majority of Americans are generous and compassionate people. I pray that, within the dangers of this present time, God continues to keep our faith strong and our hearts open. A blessed Season of Advent to you all.
Editor’s note: This message was written before the mass killing in San Bernardino, California and the amplified messages of fear that have followed that tragic event.