The following story emphasizes the beauty and importance of empowerment.
Once upon a time there was a country ruled by a king. The country was invaded and the king was killed but his children were rescued by servants and hidden away. The smallest, an infant daughter, was reared by a peasant family. They didn’t know she was the king’s daughter. She had become the peasant’s daughter and she dug potatoes and lived in poverty.
One day an old woman came out of the forest and approached the young woman who was digging potatoes. The old woman asked her: “Do you know who you are?” And the young woman said, “Yes, I’m the farmer’s daughter and a potato digger.” The old woman said: “No, no, you are the daughter of the king.” And the potato digger said: “I’m the daughter of the king?” “Yes, that’s who you are!” And the old woman disappeared back into the forest.
After the old woman left, the young woman still dug potatoes but she dug them differently. It was the way she held her shoulders and it was the light in her eyes because she knew who she was. She knew she was the daughter of the king.
The first principle of Christian social teaching is the affirmation of the dignity of the human person, created in the image of God, capable of knowing and loving the Creator, and entrusted with a stewardship of the earth. That dignity belongs to every human person without exception though it is often not recognized.
That dignity is the source of the basic rights of migrants: to life and a means of livelihood, to cultural identity, to a family, to social and political life, and to work befitting a human person.
Migration today is often a question of survival, leaving little distinction between refugees and migrants, legals and illegals; their common denominator is necessity. Welcoming migrants and realizing communion with them mirrors the will of the Father, who embraces all in his love.
The migrants’ fragile situations of social and cultural uprooting, legal problems, and insecurity about even the basic necessities of life calls on believers to open their hearts and pay greater attention to their needs. Our solidarity and burden sharing involves more than providing “things”, migrants are looking above all for understanding and acceptance, liberation from what weighs them down, and support for their desire to improve their lives.
Being sensitive to others in the abstract sounds lovely. However, in reality, it can be quite difficult even in Canada. The natural temptation today for most of us is to pull back, concentrate on our own needs, and deal with our own worries, insecurities and daily stresses.
In fact, a new hostility towards refugee claimants seem to be emerging.
“People shouldn’t be allowed to hide anywhere,” Immigration Minister Judy Sgro recently told the Canadian Press. “Nobody is exempt from the law.”
This is a classic case of a blind guide “straining out gnats and swallowing camels.” (Mt. 23:23).
Regrettably, the Immigration Minister and many other Ottawa politicians really do not understand the scope and the complexity of religious communities in Canada, nor do they take the religious community seriously.
Several individual churches across Canada, I believe the number is six or seven so far this year, far less than even one percent of the total number of churches in the country, have offered their buildings as sanctuaries to protect individuals and families who have not been recognized as refugees.
Nevertheless, they appear to be at real risk of persecution if Canada returned them to their countries of origin. Helping the stranger in need is central to the Christian faith but the seeking and granting of sanctuary is hardly a daily occurrence.
At the same time, the biblical tradition affirms that laws are necessary to achieve justice, which includes ensuring that governments fulfil their legal and moral obligations to protect and defend life.
Hence it is only when faced with a person whose refugee claim appears to have been rejected in error and/or whose life appears to be at risk that some churches felt compelled by conscience to offer sanctuary, providing the protection denied by the Canadian government. This is not the first option, but rather the least desirable one. To take refuge in a church is a desperate act.
Churches that decide to provide sanctuary do so in order to protect human life and because they have reason to believe that errors have occurred in a flawed system. Two of the major flaws in our current system are that a single decision-maker now grants or rejects refugee status, and the failure to implement an appeal process that parliament felt necessary when it adopted the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. There is no mechanism to correct errors.
The sanctity of a church building may not be a legal right in Canada, but there is a centuries old tradition of respect for it by authorities in our society. Over the years, respect for the sanctity of religious space has saved lives and prevented injustices. It has provoked sober second thought by the authorities about the legitimacy of laws and practices. When Christians believe that life is at risk because of a flawed system, the traditions of fairness and compassion must be upheld.
“We must tell people who they are. We must go from place to place saying to the dispossessed and to the lonely and the downtrodden, ‘Do you know who you are?’” You are the sons and daughters of the king!
In order to make room for some new acquisitions on my bookshelves, I decided that it was time to purge some of my current holdings. This initiative led to the rediscovery of a very interesting little tome, “Courtesy for Clerics,” written in 1947 by Hermanus.
Some of the contents were surprising humourous. The author calls for “a more cautious use of purgatives. If the castor oil bottles, so long the stronghold of seminaries, were forbidden, except under doctor’s orders, there would be less ill-health and fewer young deaths.”
Not surprisingly, the tome is also dated. “If you have only met the lady once or twice, and your acquaintance is very slight, do not raise your hat nor greet her in any way until she gives you a sign of recognition. The privilege of choosing those with whom she wishes to be acquainted rests with the lady.”
The wisdom of the ages, however, is strongly evidenced. “Be unselfish. Don’t irritate people, or wound them, by failing to see their point of view.
Repress your own irritability. It is not easy to refrain from being snappy, especially with someone who asks for it. Egotistical people are boring. Don’ t talk much about yourself, but interest yourself in what others want to talk about. Never snub anyone. Sometimes people try to justify a snub by saying that it was deserved. But a snub hurts and does no good.”
Re-reading the tome reminded me of the etiquette course that used to be mandatory for all seminarians. At the time we used to make fun of comments like, “never lick your knife,” “close your mouth when chewing” and watch with amusement as the professor described how to properly eat a raw artichoke and demonstrated how to tilt your soup bowl away from you and manipulate the spoon accordingly. In hindsight, I wish that I had paid more attention.
The fact of the matter is that we live together in narrow spaces, within a house, an office, a factory, in conference rooms, in crowded streets, in traffic, in the limited confines of a densely populated country. Our spheres of action are always touching each other. Our purposes cross just as our paths do. There is a constant danger of friction, of the kindling of anger.
Every sensible person wishes to find forms of behaviour which express concern for a proper association of the multitudes, which lessen the violence of antagonism and of cross-purposes, and which move people to be obliging and enable them to receive consideration from others.
Courtesy is an everyday affair and important for the whole of life. Regrettably, the acquisition of the life-skills of civility does not happen spontaneously.
Animals live by instinct, which is an expression of organic necessity. But in us mind is operative, which means that we can recognize truth but also err. The animal does not err in matters concerned with the conduct of its life. If it does, it is sick and it perishes. But we can err and are confronted with the task of learning. We can make mistakes. If an animal does this it is because an obstacle was in the way, either exterior or interior; but we can act wrongly because our judgment may be incorrect or passion may mislead us. Therefore we must be watchful and careful in our association with others, so that it does not become a struggle with every man’s hand against every other man. This watchfulness is expressed in ethics and moral education, in law and in the administration of justice. These are the great things.
But it is manifested also in the forms of everyday life , in courtesy, and these little things mean much more than one might suppose.
Culture does not begin with obtrusiveness and with grasping; it begins with taking one’s hand away and stepping back. Courtesy gives the other person a free space and protects him from oppressive closeness; it give him air. It recognizes the good in others and let them feel that it is valued. It keeps silence about one’s own qualities and keeps these in the background, lest they discourage others.
Courtesy strives to keep unpleasant things at a distance or at least to bridge them. It tries to avoid embarrassing situations, to remove the sting from difficult and painful circumstances, and to lighten burdens. It induces young people to honour their elders, men to honour women, and the strong to defer to the weak. All these are motives which moderate the impulses of insolence and violence and make life easier for others.
But it is a fact that today courtesy is disintegrating everywhere.
Our life, influenced by science and technology is largely determined by material objects, and this means that our attention is directed to the demands of the material situation, the work we are engaged in, the end to be attained; and so we are inclined to banish the superfluous, in form and action, and to proceed directly and without any detour towards the matter at hand. This is necessary wherever time has been wasted and materials and work-power have been squandered.
It produces a clear, clean style of action and structure which, under favourable circumstances, can attain to an austere beauty.
But it is likely to produce an atmosphere in which objectivity becomes coarseness. Reverence for the person, his dignity, feelings and emotions, all the deep and tender things that indicate “life,” are considered to be nonessentials. Sympathy for another person, that consideration for his circumstances and his mood in each particular situation, everything that is part of courtesy, is then regarded as “superfluous”. The effect is disastrous; existence is impoverished and coarsened.
St. Francis observed: “Realize, dear brother, that courtesy is actually one of the properties of God, who gives his sun and rain to the just and the unjust out of courtesy; and courtesy is the sister of charity, by which hatred is vanquished and love is cherished.”