Truly Embracing the Refugee
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The controversy over placing refugees in the state reminded me of a story about a Sixth Century Egyptian monk. The story goes like this:
(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward.)
Going to town one day to sell some small articles, Abba Agathon met a cripple on the roadside, paralysed in his legs, who asked him where he was going. Abba Agathon replied, "To town, to sell some things." The other said, "Do me the favor of carrying me there." So he carried him to the town. The cripple said to him, "Put me down where you sell your wares." He did so. When he had sold an article, the cripple asked, "What did you sell it for?" And he told him the price. The other said, "Buy me some bread," and he bought it. When Abba Agathon had sold a second article, the sick man asked, "How much did you sell it for?" And he told him the price of that also. Then the other said, "Buy me this," and he bought it. When Agathon, having sold all his wares, wanted to go, he said to him, "Are you going back?" and he replied, "Yes." Then he said, "Do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you found me." Once more he picked him up and he carried him back to that place. Then the cripple said, "Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth." Raising his eyes, Agathon saw no man, it was an angel of the Lord, come to try him."
Abba Agathon’s attitude of acceptance and charity is one we should emulate, not just in our personal lives, but also in how we act as a society. It is one modeled after Christ himself, who embraced and healed, rather than distanced himself from, the lepers. (Please, readers, do not dismiss Jesus’ actions as unrealistic for us because, being the son of God, he could heal himself. Jesus was also man and capable of catching disease. Besides, he was surrounded by disciples who could also could also become infected.)
Not only did Abba Agatha not refuse to take the cripple to town, the monk didn’t even ask the man why he needed to go to town. Abba Agathon was probably selling items he had made in his desert cell for sustenance. But he did not refuse the request to use the money raised to buy the cripple what was asked. The story does not say what other items were bought. They might not have even been needed in Abba Agathon’s mind. The monk did not ask for an accounting. He just gave as asked.
Jesus likewise did not choose who to heal. We know that one of the lepers was a Samaritan, a foreigner. He did not ask them to what they planned to do after they were made whole. He did not go and check on them later to see if they were behaving.
This attitude of acceptance should be the starting point of our policy toward refugees. This does not mean we should throw caution to the wind. We have obligations to protect others in the community. Nevertheless, we should start with and always shape our policies and community responses with the spirit of Abba Agathon.
Instead of a position that says, “Well, you can come in if you do this and this and you don’t do that,” our position should be, “Welcome, if there is a problem with this or this, we will help and we hope you don’t do that.”
If there are gaps in security screening, then we should fix them rather than shutting our doors. If there are burdens to the local schools, we should help the schools, not turn our backs on children. If there are impacts on the social service system, we should step up our support for the system and increase charitable responses in the community.
Refugees do not choose to come here. They are not abandoning their homelands. They come here because they have to.
Some people expect refugees and the agencies that help them to meet all the burdens with placing refugees in our communities. They also act like accepting refugees and whatever burdens doing so may bring as an unnecessary inconvenience far removed from the core functions of government and society.
This attitude is wrong. Because our nation is built upon a principle of extending a helping hand and because we as a society, especially Christians, believe in doing what is morally right for others, we should view it as our job to accept refugees, just as Abba Agathon must have viewed it as his job to do what the cripple asked. Welcoming those forced to flee should be viewed as part and parcel of who we are, burdens and all. We, not the refugees, should be expected to make the needed adjustments to our lives and communities.
Abba Agathon, pray that we embrace refugees as you embraced the angel of the Lord.