Welcoming the Stranger and Protecting Children

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A sunset view to the New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
The view of the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

Recently, I was in New York City with Seafarers International House to attend their Friend of Immigrants award event, which were presented this year to two champions for newcomers, Rev. Roy Riley and Rev. Stephen Bouman. Seafarers International House is a wonderful Lutheran ministry of hospitality to Lutherans and to asylum-seekers. Rev. Bouman currently serves on the LIRS Board and is a leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Rev. Riley is a former LIRS Board chair and retired Bishop of the New Jersey Synod.

We celebrated these men and their contributions to immigrants as we looked out over the water to Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty. I was privileged to be joined at the event by Nyamuoch Girwath, a former refugee from Sudan who took part in the LIRS Refugee and Migrant Leadership Academy, Judy Benke who serves on our Board, and my colleague Paul Erbes.

Here is Roy’s reflection on life, partnership, the protection of children, and rallying call to welcome the neighbors that God gives to us:

On Monday at 3:40p.m., I picked up Jesse, our five-year-old grandson from school. He is in “big school” now; not pre-school… kindergarten. Jesse is small for his age. His backpack is about as big as he is. At the end of the day Jesse stands in the line of kids at the school’s backdoor, kids waiting to be sent one by one to waiting parents (and one grandparent). When he gets close enough to the door to peak around, he looks for a familiar face and when he sees me, there is a smile and a small wave.

Executive Director and former Bishops work to welcome refugees and asylum seekers.
Seafarer’s Executive Director, Rev. Marsh Luther Drege, with former Bishops Stephen Bouman (L) and Roy Riley (R).

Jesse tells the teacher’s aide that I am indeed the person who is supposed to pick him up, and then I have to sign him out. It’s all about safety for the children. On the walk to the car, the conversation begins about how school went today. It was Jesse’s day to Show and Share, and when it’s your day to do that, you get to be the Line Leader all day!

On Monday, Jesse took a picture to school. It was from summer vacation; a picture of his brother riding a wave at North Myrtle Beach, riding that wave all the way on to the sand. I would have loved to hear Jesse’s play-by-play for the class as his brother road that wave to shore.

This is my best job now, my best retirement assignment. Jesse’s parents have a faculty meeting at the High School the first and third Mondays of each month. Since they can’t be at the elementary school on time to pick up Jesse, I do it. Betsy and I have a kind of “on call” assignment with the four grandchildren who live near us.

We are part of the safety net for our grandchildren. Not only do they have us, they have wonderful teachers, great schools, a house to live in with a yard to play in and a peaceful neighborhood. When an airplane flies over, the youngest kids squeal with delight and point toward the treetops and the plane just above them.

Rev. Marsh Luther Drege welcomes an asylum-seeking family.
A family visiting Seafarers introduces their new baby to Executive Director Rev. Marsh Luther Drege.

This is the best part about growing older. It’s seeing the potential and the joy of children growing up and knowing that you are making a difference for them and for their future. Now here is the worst part of growing older: It is seeing the obstacles and the pain of other children trying to grow up and knowing that you have not done enough to help them. I think I am not alone in carrying that burden.

I cannot get the image out of my mind of the small Syrian boy – a little smaller than Jesse – washed up on a Turkish beach with his shoes on. He didn’t ride a wave into the sand, he drowned. Or the little boy, hanging on to his father as they try to run toward safety on the Hungarian-Serbian border, the little girl being kicked to the ground by a Hungarian photojournalist.

Where is their safety net? Where is the neighborhood for them that fosters squeals of delight when a plane flies over the tops of the trees, instead of screams of terror as the sound of a plane means that bombs will soon fall and they have nowhere safe to hide. Who can their parents call on to help? How will they give their children a life filled with promise and hope?

Aspects of Seafarer's welcoming work.
Seafarers International House is an ecumenical mission of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to seafarers and sojourners-including immigrants, as well as people who are distressed, disadvantaged, and displaced.

This work is bigger than any grandparent – that is for sure. But it is not bigger than this incredibly blessed nation in which we live. What we have learned over the generations is that the few can motivate the many. The determined and committed can leverage the power to make the difference in people’s lives. Together, we can do this.

Lutherans know what we believe and we act on what we believe. We believe that all of God’s children are precious to God – from the youngest of the young to the oldest of the old, no matter where they come from or what they look like. The more vulnerable they are, the more God loves them…and calls us to do the same.

Seafarers and International House, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the World Hunger and Disaster Response programs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – Lutherans and their partners are there in the thick of the crisis. We do this together. Our partnerships are invaluable, because they make a difference every single day.

SeafarersInternationalThanks be to God that we can do this work together. Doing it together makes it possible. That is joy for us, because we know that together we make a difference. Thank you, Seafarers, for your historic and present commitment to the migrants, the wayfarers. Thank you for providing a harbor of hospitality. Keep shining that light!

Please support our work with Syrian refugees and welcoming the stranger.

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