Christmas Present

When I wrote this poem, back in December 2019, I was thinking primarily about Mexican and Central American immigrants to the United States, and about the inhumane ways that these individuals and families are too often treated in our midst and at our borders, despite their tremendous contributions to our society and their innate value and dignity as human beings. And in this time of COVID-19, I fear more than ever for the already precarious well-being of Latin American migrants who are working vital agricultural and other jobs without the kinds of safety precautions, compensation, health care or other “benefits” they need and deserve.1 2 3 4

Today, as we see an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, largely Coronavirus-related, I am also grieving the irrational, unprovoked racist violence being done to this group of human beings.5 6 My grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from China after World War II (having spent much of her childhood and youth in Wuhan, incidentally), and though I am certainly not unbiased, I do believe I can truthfully say that her presence in this country was a blessing to the people and places her life touched here. She is no longer with us in body, but it breaks my heart to think that if she were, this honorable, kind, generous, deep-thinking, compassionate woman could be a target for attack simply because of where she was born and the color of her skin—and to know that the beloved grandparents, parents, siblings and children of many Americans of Asian descent are so targeted.

Though it can be hard to maintain optimism in the face of current realities, it continues to be my fervent hope and prayer that our nation (including/especially those among us who claim the Bible as our source of moral guidance) will grow in our commitments:

  • to “not oppress a foreigner” (Exodus 23:9);
  • to “treat the foreigner residing among you as your native born” and “love them as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34);
  • to recognize that “you and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord” (Numbers 15:15);
  • to “not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow [citizen] or a foreigner residing in one of your towns” (Deuteronomy 24:14);
  • and to “do no wrong or violence to the foreigner” (Jeremiah 22:3)—

to reference just a few of the Old Testament’s teachings on this subject.

When it comes to the New Testament, it seems helpful to remember:

  • that Jesus and his family lived for a time as refugees in Egypt, fleeing violence in their home country (see Matthew 2:13-15);
  • that when Jesus launched his ministry (see Luke 4:14-30), he reminded the gathered worshipers that God had a history of healing/providing for foreigners who were suffering from illness, famine or other afflictions;
  • that Jesus himself showed compassion and respect to a variety of people who hailed from outside of his personal national/ethnic/religious background
    • e.g., the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42),
    • the Centurion and his servant (Matthew 8:5-13),
    • the Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19), etc.;
  • and that Jesus’ disciples were challenged to move past their senses of exclusivity and entitlement, and to enter into deep fellowship and resource-sharing with culturally different neighbors
    • e.g., Pentecost multi-lingual gathering & Early Church community life (Acts 2),
    • inclusion of Greek widows in food distribution (Acts 6:1-7),
    • Peter & Cornelius (Acts 10),
    • Paul confronting Peter about separation from Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-16), etc.

And so, from this inner turmoil of fear, sadness, anger, hope, gratitude and awe, I offer these musings about the tremendous gifts that migrants (and descendants of migrants) bring to communities they dwell in, as well as those they visit along the way.


 

Christmas Present

It couldn’t have felt a lot like Christmas
when the weary couple staggered into town
that silent night.

No room at the inn—
or was there just no room for them?
Had their appearance been more presentable—
or their resources more plentiful—
would that innkeeper have discovered
that he did in fact have one more vacancy?
Had their accents been more polished—
or their offerings more lavish—
would this young, pregnant woman
and her quiet, hard-working husband
have been welcomed in this place,
where they had deep ancestral roots
but a crushing lack of current standing?
Would their arduous trek have been heralded
and their newborn baby celebrated
by more than a few startled shepherds
and some wise men from afar?
Would their tenacious faith have been honored
and their humble obedience emulated
by those who claimed to know the Scriptures
and comprehend the heart of God?

But, to be fair,
do we who have the benefit of hindsight—
who have peeked behind the scenes
and seen the blueprints undergirding
God’s exquisitely mysterious ways
of working in the world—
do a better job of cherishing those exhausted sojourners
who venture into our communities,
bearing this profoundly good news:
that the life they carry with them
can in fact tear down the dividing wall of hostility
and create in place of “us” and “them”
one new people:
indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all?

© 2020
Alexis Spencer-Byers


1 What Happens if America’s 2.5 Million Farmworkers Get Sick? (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/opinion/coronavirus-farm-workers.html?smid=em-share)

2 Farmworkers’ COVID-19 Pandemic Relief Fund (https://hipgive.org/project/farmworkers-covid-19-pandemic-relief-fund/)

3 Justice for Migrant Women (https://justice4women.org/)

4 New Resource: A List of Relief Funds for Undocumented Workers in California (https://legalaidatwork.org/blog/relief-funds/)

5 Asian Americans speak out after rise in hate crimes during coronavirus (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-asian-americans-report-racism-anti-asian-hate-after-trum-china-daniel-dae-kim-jeannie-mai-speak-out/)

6 Asian Americans Advancing Justice (https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org/covid19)

COVID-19 and the Pursuit of Shalom

On one hand, there is so much being said right now about the coronavirus pandemic that it seems almost pointless to add more words to the swirling conversation.

On the other hand, as an ordinary person (with no medical expertise, manufacturing equipment, or deep pockets at my disposal) who also happens to be a poet, one of the few things I have to offer to my fellow humans at this point is a handful of rudimentary reflections on some of the social possibilities that accompany this health crisis.

Reports of two extreme responses—1) total nonchalance/disregard for recommended (or mandated) measures to safeguard individual and community health, and 2) a kind of knee-jerk panic that can bring with it racism/scapegoating and selfish hoarding of resources—concern, sadden and anger me deeply. It is my hope and prayer that we can find common ground somewhere between these poles, and that even though we’ll need to stand six feet apart in that arena, we will find ways to care for one another and will experience a deep sense of peace and well-being (the “shalom” of the Old Testament) as we focus not just on our own needs, but also on the needs of those around us—especially those most at risk for medical, financial, and other forms of hardship.

To those—and there are many—who have already staked out spots in this community-minded space, thank you for your caring service and your inspiring example! 


 

COVID-19 and the Pursuit of Shalom

Is this the leprosy of our day—
the dread disease that makes us regard one another
with suspicion and fear,
speculating that each person we encounter
could be “unclean”?

Will we, like self-protective religious elite on the Jericho Road,
go out of our way to maximize the literal and metaphorical spaces
between ourselves & others,
hurrying past suffering strangers with a glaring absence
of compassion or concern,
or will we, even while taking care to conscientiously observe
prescribed measures of social distance,
seek out methods to soften the separation—
a smile, a nod,
a brief exchange of conversational grace,
an offer to help in whatever ways remain within our power—
remembering that despite those differences
that have divided us in the past—
and may yet cause disagreement in the future—
we have at least this much in common:
that, more evidently than even before,
our own well-being—
indeed, our very survival—
depends on the health and safety of those,
known and unknown,
with whom we share our corners of the world?

© 2020
Alexis Spencer-Byers