This article is part of the Edge of Change Roadtrip. To follow Sarah van Gelder’s journey through photos, maps and videos, visit www.edgeofchangeroadtrip.org.
A Syrian refugee family has just arrived in Dallas. The occasion is generating a great deal of controversy, more than you might expect for the arrival of two small children, their parents and two grandparents. In an almost biblical scene, this family is looking for shelter and a sense of home.
Many support the governor’s opposition to refugee resettlement.
But the family was delayed. In November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that his state would not accept any refugees from Syria, and on Dec. 2 his administration filed for an injunction to prevent the family of six from settling in Dallas. Then, on Friday, the governor relented and withdrew his court motion. The city is deeply divided, with many supporting the governor’s opposition to refugee resettlement.
Recent immigrants are not the only subjects of protests. A camouflage-clad group armed with rifles showed up outside a mosque in Irving, Texas, during services on Nov. 21, chanting against the “Islamization” of America. Irving, a suburb of Dallas, became famous for an incident in which Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old student, was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school. Then the Texas Rebel Knights, a Ku Klux Klan group from Quinlan, announced they would hold a rally outside the mosque on Dec. 12, a plan they later postponed until 2016.
“I believe it is time for us to lay aside political correctness and identify the belief system that is responsible for these horrific acts … Islam is a false religion, and it is inspired by Satan himself,” Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, told his congregation in November. The video of the church service shows many in the assembly applauding.
“We know what it’s like to experience discrimination.”
There is another side to the city’s Christian community, however. This Sunday, I went to church in Dallas. Granted, they were services I selected because they are congregations known for their open-mindedness. But what I found was a commitment from these Christians to live out the welcoming, compassionate side of Christianity and to do all they could to welcome in the strangers.
The 9 a.m. service at the gay-welcoming Cathedral of Hope, was filled with couples—mainly men—who came to the church for worship and communion. They gathered afterward in the Fellowship Hall for coffee and treats. I asked Rev. Todd Scoggins for his view of refugee families. “Oh, we would welcome them!” He said. “We know what it’s like to experience discrimination.”
Reverend Neil G. Cazares-Thomas, Senior Pastor of the 4,500-member church, expressed the same view. “Even if we had to defy the governor, we would welcome them,” he told me. He and others from the church plan to gather outside the Irving mosque on Saturday in support of the Muslims there.
At the First Methodist Church of Kessler Park in Dallas, Rev. Wes Magruder wasted little time in speaking to the refugee issue. He also invited his congregation to join him outside the Irving mosque to counter the anti-Muslim protesters, and said supporting the Syrian refugee family was also on his mind. In one emotional moment during the service, he brought out a small plastic bowl partly filled with coins. He said that one of his congregants, a first-grade girl named Emma Rodriguez, had handed him the coins worth $3.64 to help the Syrian refugee family.
One in every 122 people is now an international refugee.
The Syrian refugee crisis is only one of many, and the city of Dallas is just one place divided over accepting a family of strangers. The United Nations says 60 million people are now displaced, more than ever in human history, and more than half of them are children. One in every 122 people is now an international refugee, displaced within their own country, or seeking asylum, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
There are sure to be many more. The United Nations only counts those displaced as a result of conflict, but we know that rising sea levels and persistent droughts could force millions more out of their homes. Any of us could find ourselves on the run, and any of us could find our communities inundated with refugees.
Among the most important questions of our time is whether we manage to welcome the stranger with grace.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.