All major religions agree on a few fundamental tenets: Welcome the stranger, stand with the most vulnerable, and love your neighbor. As a Christian and the leader of the Episcopal Church in Maine, engaging with the world is central to how I live out my faith every day.
With the news that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed a limited version of the president’s travel ban to go into effect, we should recall our moral obligation to assist refugees seeking a chance to rebuild their lives and create a better future for their families. As the world searches for solutions to the largest refugee crisis in global history — more than 22 million people worldwide of whom fewer than 1 percent will ever be resettled in another country — we in Maine must do our part.
Since the late 1930s, when Episcopalians began to assist in the resettlement of those fleeing from the terrors of European conflict, we have continued to welcome the stranger. While our refugee agency, Episcopal Migration Ministries, does not work in Maine, we are glad to partner with Catholic Charities Maine, which serves as our state’s only resettlement organization. In fiscal year 2016, Catholic Charities Maine resettled 642 primary refugees and assisted 85 asylees and more than 34 secondary migrants, those refugees who are resettled in one state but move to another location such as Maine. A similar number of arrivals is expected this year.
Refugees seeking protection from persecution who are resettled in the United States undergo multiple layers of security screening before being admitted. If there is not enough information about an individual, he or she will not be allowed to enter. While I value the mechanisms that keep us safe and secure, we must match those efforts with compassion.
Those working directly with New Mainers will tell you that it’s all about relationships. Members of the Church at 209, a Lutheran and Episcopal congregation in Augusta, have become deeply involved with supporting newly arrived Iraqi families. One volunteer writes of a late night call from a family with a newborn who was in desperate need of diapers. Putting her own baby in the car, she met them at Wal-Mart, and using grant funds from the Diocese of Maine, helped them buy necessities.
“It was obvious that they had never had someone do something like this. And to know for myself how I would have felt, it was quite powerful. I certainly do not have the money to be able to support a family through a time like this, so having the grant to work with was truly a gift greater than anything I could have done. The relationship with the Iraqi Community made it possible for them to know who to ask that might help. They could not thank me enough,” she writes.
Who is more vulnerable than a family with a 1-week-old baby? But how isolated they would have felt without a relationship with a Mainer they trusted, a young mother who put herself in their shoes and acted with compassion. Loving your neighbor begins with taking the time to build such relationships and looking beyond differences to find common bonds and shared human experiences that knit us together as a community. Loving your neighbor begins with remembering that Jesus was a refugee.
The demographic and economic indicators in Maine suggest that our state will prosper only as we welcome new workers and their families. Our unemployment rate in Maine is at 3 percent, the lowest level since 1976. As the oldest state in the nation, Maine will not find new workers here, but rather from among immigrants settling here in hope for a safe, productive and prosperous future. The public and private safety net that offers a successful transition for refugees, secondary migrants and asylees is a short-term, relatively inexpensive investment in people who will enrich our communities.
Our job at the local level, no matter our faith or how many generations since our own family’s arrival, is to seek out friendships with our newly arrived neighbors, to experience the blessing of learning their stories and to help them restore hope for their futures.
The Right Rev. Stephen T. Lane is the Episcopal Bishop of Maine.