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We sojourners from another land come together as our faiths' holy seasons overlap

By Terry Dawson
Special to the American-Statesman
Mercedes De Uriarte,  raised in Mexico; Vitaliy Basyuk, born in Ukraine; and Haider Imam, from India, share an immigrant story.

This year, Passover picks up where Lent leaves off, while the latter overlaps the Hindu feast of Holi. The month of Ramadan nearly envelops them all and ended a mere four days before the Buddhist festival, Vesak.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam emerge from the same patriarchal tradition of Abraham. While Hinduism and Buddhism fall outside this tradition, they both accept the law of Karma, which holds that every good act will be rewarded and every bad act punished. 

All these religions in short affirm the sentiments of Exodus 22:21:  "A sojourner you shall not wrong nor oppress, for you were once sojourners in the land of Egypt."

The Sephardic Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, lay down the gauntlet for the U.S. to live out this admonition so the world might know us as a nation saying: "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore."

Have not we Americans embraced this identity embossed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty? Have not these words welled up in our minds as we've watched the largest refugee crisis since World War II unfold in our very living rooms?

All the religions I've mentioned revolve around preparation. But have they prepared us for what transpires now in Ukraine? 

Holi, affirming the triumph of good over evil has come; Vesak, the celebration of the possibility of enlightenment made manifest in Buddha, will come; Easter with its promise of victory over death will come; Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of breaking the Fast at the end of Ramadan, commemorating God's revelation in the Quran, will come; the celebratory reading of the Haggadah, the story of Israel's liberation, will come but the devastation in Ukraine will continue.

I was born into faith and in this country, but I consider myself part of an immigrant family. I never knew the grandparents who left Ireland to come to America; all died before I breathed life. Yet I grew up in my grandparents' home. The fact that they and their siblings swapped their surname for one more WASP, during the time of Irish Need Not Apply signs, bores into me still like a brand. I have a soft spot, therefore, for any immigrant tale.

Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.

To get to the heart of the contemporary sojourner experience, I've enlisted the voices of my friends. Three are direct immigrants from India, Nigeria and Ukraine. One's the son of Polish Holocaust survivors; one's the daughter of Vietnamese "boat people"; one, born in the U.S., returned shortly thereafter to her Basque father's native Mexico, before re-entering her birthplace as an adult. 

Though they arrived at different periods, all consider the situation for immigrants far worse today. Sadly, a recent Gallup poll bears this out, showing a nearly 10% rise since 2018 in Americans who regard increased immigration as a critical threat.

Vitaliy Basyuk, who comes from Ukraine, where one of his uncles had been exiled to Siberia and another dragged off to work in a German labor camp during World War II, suggested that his sense as an "outsider" has been fed most by many Americans' "lack of curiosity" and their proclivity "to rely on stereotypes" when it comes to figuring out folks like him. "The fact that people in this country refrain from sharing their sincere feelings and experiences till long acquainted with you," he suggested contributes as well.

Haider Imam, who came to the U.S. from India and whose Texas mosque was desecrated the first year of our friendship, agreed. He said that one is left to feel "in one's mind as if one cannot escape the box that people have already decided one fits in."

Chinyere Okpara came to the U.S. from Nigeria.

Chinyere Okpara who came with her parents from Nigerian at age 5, attributed her sense of not belonging to two other factors. Her mother's fear that her children might be morally corrupted by America, lead her to tell them daily: You are Nigerians simply living in America. "The fact that I don't share a history with Black Americans," Okpara shared, "reinforces this as a constant reminder that I'm not one of them." Though confident in her job, which ensures people of color find representation in her corporation, this difference in perspective, she confessed, "can sometimes cause me to doubt my effectiveness."

 The children of immigrants, who've also achieved great success in their respective fields, describe somewhat different experiences. Mercedes De Uriarte, born in Philadelphia but raised in Mexico City, returned to the U.S. to escape an abusive familial relationship by joining a boyfriend on this side of the border.

She clarified that, while she "never identifies as an immigrant," she as a Latina experiences similar limitations. She shared how she in 1987 joined a UT school of journalism faculty of 36 white males. 'I've remained the lowest paid member among them throughout my tenure," she went on, despite the fact that she brought in a number of grants.

A publication launched by a group of Hispanic students under her sponsorship, in fact, received the highest U.S. recognition in the field of journalism: the John F. Kennedy Award.

Zane Lasky's parents survived the Holocaust when many of their family members did not.

Zane Lasky's father survived three concentration camps. His mother, whose family all died in a camp in Poland, narrowly escaped but lived in terror of being identified as a Jew the entire time she worked in a factory in Germany. "The shell shock of this experience created an insular home," Lasky shared, "one that left me feeling lost and apart from the larger American culture I was born into."

Jessica Huynh's family fled Vietnam. She remembers a mother trying to alter the way she looked to fit in.

Jessica Huynh, whose parents endured a harrowing experience in flight from Vietnam on the day Saigon fell and who only embraced Buddhism in this country after that ordeal, stated that she felt "more like a chameleon as I became the family translator not only of language but of American culture as a whole." She also felt pressure to assimilate in two directions — with a father coaching her on how to speak English without an accent and a mother resorting to skin lighteners and diet pills to craft her daughter to represent a certain class of Vietnamese female.

When all asked where they fit into the religious narrative of the "sojourner," each offered a slight variation on a common theme. While Basyuk saw Jesus' command to "love one's neighbor" as relevant, he believed Christ's mandate to "not be afraid" the most important for those seeking to "welcome the stranger."

Imam agreed, stating that most people's "reluctance to assume the position of the vulnerable" only impedes true hospitality. Over his years serving on Islamic Circle of North America Relief, he learned that his experience as a sojourner empowered him to more effectively minister to those whose need now placed them on the outside.

De Uriarte said that Americans "fear they might embarrass themselves with their lack of understanding of a culture" and fail then to take the risk of closer contact. As to the attitude "we're doing something for you" — one almost inherent in our national approach, the group was in accord: this just gets in the way of genuine cross-cultural interaction.

Others of the group viewed their interface with the dominant culture in a more favorable light. When Okpara compares the professional progress she's made with that of equally educated females in Nigeria, she can only feel grateful that her mother remained in the U.S., even after her father left.

For her success in the work world answered the unspoken question that often rose in her head as a child:" Why did you bring us here?"

Imam concurred: "What my children have achieved materially here would not have been possible as minority members in India."

When welcomed by young Americans starting a theatre company — folks outside his tight cluster of families of Holocaust survivors in New York City — Lasky said, "It changed my life."

Huynh, who recently ran for judge, admits that she as an Asian woman has felt most like an outsider as she's moved up into the ranks of those with power and influence in the legal system. "Still," she qualified, "its also my super power; it gives me the opportunity to challenge the status quo and suggest: Is that really working for you? If not, well I have something different to offer."

Epigenetics, the study of how behaviors and environments affect how our genes work,  confirm experiences of our parents can lead to molecular changes that, while not encoded in our DNA, can nevertheless be passed on.Children and grandchildren of immigrants might manifest the same fear and anxiety associated with "oppression" as an "outsider." Yet this doesn't mean these descendants are "hardwired" by this effect. Our bodies and minds, as the attitudes of these folks from immigrant families attest, can transform those deep impressions into a message of hope.

I left this conversation feeling the way I do about our respective seasons' of preparation. That is, might not Lent, Passover and Ramadan prove more socially constructive were we to focus less on abstinence and more on immersion in the lives we perceive as "outside" our valued traditions? 

What if Holi and Vesak celebrated less with profusion of decor and purifying libations and more with inclusion of those finding little reason to celebrate anything?  What if we focused less on giving to those in need to erase guilt in the shadow of our own abundance and more on enriching ourselves with exposure to those whom we honestly see in various ways as foreign?           

 Elements for such exploration already exist in our traditions. Jews make a habit of inviting non-Jewish friends and travelers to the Seder. Mosques make provision for open houses where non-Muslims join the breaking of the Ramadan fast. Buddhists never call the teachings of other religions blasphemous and the Dali Lama sometimes even quotes the Gospel. My neighbor delivers food prepared for Holi to our Christian front door and St. James Episcopal Church, the place where I worship, like congregations practicing "open communion," extends an invitation before each distribution of the Eucharist: "Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcomed at this table."

After all, we all long for the same sense of home. Ukrainian poet, Serhiy Zhadan articulates this human need best: "You know you've got to live somewhere you aren't afraid to die."

The actions of Zhadan's countrymen and women over past weeks — in both their seeking refuge as well as in standing their ground — embody such resignation. 

Haven't these, the now new "wretched refuse" in their "yearning to breathe free" shown us the beauty and power of the sojourner that seeks to find and keep a home? Is there not something in us that yearns to enter that struggle? In fact, is this not the very core of faith — what the Book of Hebrews describes as seeking "another country" — one "where no one is a stranger"?

Were we the faithful more fully engaged in such seeking, might not even people who don't claim a religion see faith as a way to claim the divinity in our humanity?

Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.