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Room at the Table

By Rev. Sheila Graves

Almost 400 years ago, pilgrims came to America looking for a place to practice their religion without interference and prejudice. They—who had been unwelcome in England and journeyed to a far-away land for an opportunity to live their lives in peace—were welcomed by those that already lived here. They shared their first harvest celebration in 1621, grateful for those that had reached out to offer food, shelter and knowledge—a celebration of “plantings” coming to fruition.

But then most shut their hearts and minds to those that came after them—other groups of Christians, Quakers and Jews, other religions and nationalities, and those that had welcomed them to begin with—the native Americans. When the pilgrims established religious freedom, most forgot their own experiences of discrimination and extended it to those that were different from them.

For many decades after, they based their laws on only their religious beliefs. It was only after a century of friction and protectionism that those who wrote the Constitution ensured that religion and law were separate.

Sadly, we who were founded in diversity also have a historical pattern of allowing in “foreigners”—often with suspicion, then causing them to feel separate and less-than. Time and again, after one group settled in, it became less than welcoming to the next group. Then, over time, as that second group assimilated, it, too, became part of the in-group—joining in to make the next group feel unwelcome. It was almost like a fraternity hazing, only gradually and grudgingly allowing others into the fold.

All we need to see a microcosm of this is to look at the history of New York City, starting with the Dutch, then the English, turning against the original peoples from Algonquin and Mohegan tribes, who had peacefully shared the land and waterways for lifetimes.

After that were waves of others from Britain, then the Irish, Italians, Chinese, African-Americans, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Russians, Portuguese, Greeks, Germans, Polish, Puerto Ricans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and many more—creating a city in which are now spoken over 800 languages. And each group has been forced to start at the bottom of the heap, work hard for several generations, and endure prejudice before being “allowed” to move beyond the discrimination imposed on them.

In all cases of “foreigners” coming into a country, those in power judge these “others” as less important, talented or worthy. They’re assigned a lower rung on the ladder, forced to live as lower class, then discriminated against because they’re lower class.

Sadly (again), this history is turning out to have much greater relevance than simply encouraging us to open our hearts and hospitality to those that are different. Today, it sounds like a political statement, addressing issues of humanity with serious consequences that are right up in our faces with frightening immediacy.

Except at its foundation, it isn’t a political statement—it’s a human one. If each of us is a unique expression of divine potential….If each culture is a unique expression of how people join and cooperate….If each religion is a mural of human relationship to Source and Essence….Then when we turn our backs on a part of us, and a part of our Source, we exclude expressions of Divine Possibility.

All the smaller streams of humanity…individuals, families, cultures and spiritual paths…flow from, and into, other small streams…eventually joining to become larger streams…then rivers…then the tides and waves and constant interconnected flow of the One Ocean. Our Source, our God, the Sacred River that runs through us, cannot keep flowing without our sharing open minds, and uniting as one Fluid Force.

I know this understanding seems impractical, even Pollyana-ish, in the face of current practical and serious concerns about refugees and terrorists. This isn’t about pacifism. It is sometimes necessary to respond to hateful intent and action with enough force to stop them before they destroy more lives. But even in the midst of the horror of events we’ve seen in Paris and elsewhere, we can never entirely, or permanently, lose sight of Higher Love, or a Larger Vision of what is unfolding in our world.

No one has all the answers right now. But we do have plenty of evidence of what’s created when we withdraw compassion and respect from people over time: their human Spirit, their Divine right to life—rise up. And those that are disaffected and unbalanced will use this as a vehicle to express their hateful imbalance.

And if we look at history we’ll see that many of those that rebel with anger and violence have been misused and disrespected, their cultures “raped” and enslaved. This doesn’t exonerate them from justice for their current actions, but it does offer a good idea of what we might want to do differently going forward. So while the answers must include protection and justice, they must also include generosity of heart, and enough respect for differences that we don’t lump individuals under single headings, ethnically or spiritually.

Dr. Kristeva, French Linguist and Psychoanalyst has said: Let us escape the hatred and the burden that can come with “otherness.” This alienation will cease within the universality of our love for the other. Indeed, mark this well: Your neighbor is not only your brother, your relative or your marriage relation. Anyone’s neighbor is any other person’s neighbor. Your soul is no longer yours alone, but belongs to all your brethren, whose souls also become yours, or rather whose souls and yours constitute just a single soul—the unique soul of the Christ.

We…individuals and humanity itself…have major decisions ahead of us. So let this year, this body of humanity of which we are members, be one of decency, not derision…inclusion, not separation…heart, not hate.

Let us feel and follow the words from the post that went around the world just days after the massacre at the Bataclan Theater in Paris: “Friday night, you took the love of my life, the mother of my son—but you will not have my hatred. I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. Responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security….You lost.

We are just two, now, my son and I, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world. I have no more time to devote to you. He is barely 17-months-old. [But] for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.”

In the words from a Carrie Newcomer song, “Let us sing the new world in. This is how it all begins….Here and now we can be the Belov’d Community….There is room at the table for everyone.”

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