Today’s scripture readings:
Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have studied how spending time in city parks helps asylum seekers feel a sense of belonging. Asylum seekers are people with a well-founded fear of persecution or death who cannot stay in their home country for that reason. Sometimes people are forced to flee human rights violations. Millions of people each year escape from armed conflicts or other crises or violence. Some no longer feel safe and are targeted because of who they are or what they do or believe—for their ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or political opinions. Asylum seekers are those who flee their home countries and arrive elsewhere, eager to make their case that they were unsafe in their homeland and could not safely return.
Upon their arrival in a new country, many asylum seekers try to remain invisible, staying indoors for fear of attracting the wrong sort of attention. Often, they describe feeling lost, confused, and lonely because they have lost the support networks that most of us take for granted—their communities, colleagues, relatives, and friends. Prevented from working or studying, asylum seekers often find their daily lives monotonous and meaningless. The legal process often drags on for months or years, and uncertainty about the future creates anxiety and stress.
The researchers in the U. K. say that parks and other green spaces in the city are places where asylum seekers can gain confidence by being part of the community, and in those parks, they find much-needed moments of respite from hardship. We all know that simply taking in some sunshine and breathing fresh air is good for our mental health. But it’s more than that. Parks become a safe place where asylum seekers encounter others, talk to their neighbors, and begin building relationships. Some of them have said that even just sitting on a park bench for a while helps them feel more like part of the community, and that is to say nothing of park programs designed to help refugees find a sense of belonging. In some parks, outdoor language classes allow asylum seekers to learn together in public, and local passersby see these new neighbors’ efforts to integrate themselves into the community. In one city, groups of college students and refugees explore the local parks and surrounding countryside together, and often new friendships emerge in the process. Other cities have created gardening projects that allow refugees and local residents to get their hands dirty together.
At the end of the day, it’s all about belonging. All of us, citizens and asylum seekers alike, just want to know we belong.
The story of Mary and Martha is familiar to many of us. Jesus is traveling, and in a particular village, he stops and is welcomed into Martha’s home. Martha busies herself with preparing a meal while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teachings. Martha gets frustrated that Mary isn’t helping with the cooking and tries to get Jesus to take her side and send Mary into the kitchen. But Jesus scolds Martha and tells her to leave Mary alone.
Most of us can relate to Martha’s frustration. Whether it’s doing all the cooking and housework, or a situation in the office where it feels like you’re doing more than everyone else, or something else altogether, we’ve all had that experience of feeling like we’ve been stuck with all the work while everyone else seems to be hanging around doing nothing. We’ve all been there. But I don’t think it’s just that Martha is upset she’s doing all the work. I think there’s more to it than that.
Even more so than in our own time, in Jesus’ day, the work of preparing a meal was women’s work. A woman’s place in those days really was in the kitchen. A place where a woman did not belong? Out in the other room, learning from Jesus. The social codes and boundaries were clear and inflexible; a woman was not to sit in a man’s place at the feet of a teacher. I wonder if part of what’s going on in this story is that Martha resents that Mary has stepped out of line, and she’s trying to enforce the rules, accusing Mary of crossing a boundary and insisting that she get back in her place. Martha knows Mary is acting inappropriately and wants her to get back in line. Martha’s message to Mary is clear: You don’t belong there.
How does Jesus respond? He sides with Mary, who has broken the rules and dares to sit at his feet—the one who insists that’s where she belongs. Jesus says “she has chosen the better part.” He doesn’t play by the rules of social convention and refuses to be constrained by the boundaries humans put in place. Instead, he makes sure Mary knows she does belong. It doesn’t matter what society says about people like her; she’s in the right place. He uses this situation to express his contempt for a system that lifts some up and puts others down, creates insiders and outsiders, and tells whole groups of people, “You don’t belong.”
As we have been preparing to welcome an asylum-seeking family to our newly renovated Room 99 apartment, Rachel Uthmann from the International Association for Refugees led a Sunday Forum at Gloria Dei last November in which she described what it means to be an asylum seeker and ways we can be in an authentic, caring relationship with our Room 99 guests. Rachel described what occurs after people experience a humanitarian disaster that forces them to flee their homes. Addressing their immediate needs comes first—getting them to safety and finding them shelter, food, water, and medical care. If all goes well, they are stabilized, and life is sustained. But at this point, the problem is not solved; they don’t really have life; they are merely existing. What comes next is the work of recovery. They need to develop new capacities to navigate unfamiliar surroundings. They need to tend to their emotional well-being. They need outlets to consider questions of faith. They need to feel like they are making a contribution—not just a sad person in need but someone who has something to give. But as asylum seekers arrive in a new place and attempt to recover from the trauma they have experienced, the single most important thing they need—the most critical thing—is a sense of community. They need to be invited into a space where people know them. They need to be welcomed and treated like human beings. As Rachel Uthmann said at that forum, “Asylum seekers need someone to look them in the eyeballs and tell them they belong.”
If you’ve perused the announcements in your bulletin today, you’ve already read that we will be welcoming our first family of asylum seekers any day now to live in our newly-renovated Room 99: dad Luis, mom Stephanie, and their seven-year-old son, Sebastian, from Peru. As they get settled, we are first committed to respecting their privacy. After that, we will follow their lead, extending the invitation to be in community as they feel ready to receive it. We are committed to the work of recovery that helps asylum seekers move beyond merely existing in a new place to become an integral part of our community, who have opportunities to contribute their gifts and feel truly alive. We will be for this family what we aim to be for everyone who walks through the doors of this church: a congregation who says, “You are very welcome here. You belong.”
Amnesty International, “Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, and Migrants,” accessed July 15, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/refugees-asylum-seekers-and-migrants/.
R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
Karoline Lewis, “No Comparison,” on WorkingPreacher.org, published July 10, 2016, accessed July 15, 2022, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4686.
Beth Steddon, “How spending time in city parks helps asylum seekers to feel at home,” on The Conversation, published November 21, 2017, accessed July 15, 2022, https://theconversation.com/how-spending-time-in-city-parks-helps-asylum-seekers-to-feel-at-home-87718.
Rachel Uthmann, Sunday Forum at Gloria Dei, November 7, 2021, accessed July 15, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etasP9cgCU0.