Bienvenue! They came from half a world away and now stood before the congregation to receive simple welcoming gifts of fleece-knotted prayer shawls made by the Sunday School. The father and boys were soberly clad in western clothing but the mother and teen-age daughter were attired in bright-colored dresses and turbans, proudly proclaiming their African identify. Before arriving in the United States this family of six had spent three years in a United Nations refugee camp in Cameroon, fleeing violence in their Central African Republic homeland. Now, after months of preparation by the church to sponsor and outfit a home for them, they were finally here.
The Episcopal Church that I attend is rather “high church” with our large and excellent choir, elaborately carved rood screen, beautiful leaded-glass windows and chanted Eucharistic prayer. It’s a traditional, holy atmosphere, and my traditional, anglophile, soul rejoices in the sacred space. But I know full well that our formal church environment and service can feel remote to some—hence our (wince) moniker of the “frozen chosen.” You know the joke. There is a flood. The Baptists, Congregationalists, and Catholics, fill and stack the sandbags. The Presbyterians form a committee and coordinate efforts with local agencies. The Lutherans are in the church basement making soup and hot coffee for the workers. And the Episcopalians write checks.
As the congregation enthusiastically applauded the French-speaking refugees standing before them, I prayed that they would feel the sincere warmth of our welcome but I also wondered what the refugees would miss, what they were no doubt already missing, (including warmer weather) from their recent lives, so far away. In a posting on the United Nations Women web site there are photographs and descriptions of the Cameroon refugee camps. Dirt floors, rudimentary cooking arrangements, and crowded conditions overall, are evident. But there are also scenes of the make-shift market in the camp bustling with activity, the open-air adult literacy classes, a sewing machine, heaped with colorful fabric set up outside the dressmaker’s “shop”, and again, and again, the beautiful smiles of the women, clearly engaged in building community in spite of their circumstances.
Barbara Brown Taylor, author of An Altar in the World recounts the story of God appearing to Jacob in a dream, after running away from his enraged brother Esau. Awakening and surveying the barren landscape around him, Jacob exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place… and I did not know it.” Seeking altars in the world, sacred spaces outside of church walls, can be deeply reverential. My yoga practice helps me with this, by creating space in my busy life for God to be present. Invariably after I am refreshed, God then gently “pushes” me back into the world to find altars, to live my faith.
Last Sunday, as the surprised smiles grew on the mother, father, and children, and the congregation continued their irrepressible clapping, I saw the Christmas story re-played. I had no doubt that I was witnessing one of God’s miracles in this quiet, beautiful family before us. They had lived through circumstances that I can’t even begin to imagine, stayed together and persevered, had come all the way across the ocean to America to build a new life and live in peace. Surely, like Jacob, and like the blessed family seeking shelter in a stable so long ago, their story includes finding altars in the wilderness, that helped them on their way. I pray that they will find the Lord in this place too.