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Repairing broken sidewalks

Together We Welcome conference closes Sunday with poetry and priorities

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia A. Thompson

LOUISVILLE — Before delivering a talk to end Church World Service’s Together We Welcome Conference  on Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia A.  Thompson delivered one of her many published poems to the online audience of about 300 people.

An excerpt from her poem “broken sidewalks”:

“we, the mystery of life

living as seeds fallen into the cracks

of broken sidewalks

finding soil

pushing deep shattering concrete …

then as now

we transmogrify

then as now

we swim rivers to generational healing

then as now

we dream afloat

riding flotsam

rearranging shards of broken sidewalks

into sweeping mosaics of freedom”

Thompson is the Associate General Minister for Wider Church Ministries and Operations in the United Church of Christ and the Co-Executive for Global Ministries in a partnership with the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Together We Welcome was a three-day virtual gathering held to strengthen support for refugees, immigrants and migrants. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provided sustaining support for the conference.

Using her poem to frame her talk, Thompson urged listeners to think of themselves as not only people walking on broken sidewalks but creating “out of the brokenness around us.”

“How do you find divine presence in the moment that’s around us? All is not well in the world. Global challenges are in epic numbers,” she said. War and political unrest, famine and drought, economics and COVID-19 comprise “a short list of the issues affecting the global movement of peoples,” a number the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said had grown to nearly 80 million people by 2019.

Two-thirds of the world’s refugees came from five countries, according to Amnesty International: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. The most recent crisis, of course, is Ukraine, where people in neighboring countries “flung open their doors. We were heartened and encouraged to hear about this,” Thompson said. But some neighbors have denied entrance to Ukrainian refugees from certain African, Middle Eastern and Caribbean countries, Thompson said. “As the African Union noted, all people have the right to cross international borders during a conflict,” Thompson said. “All should have the same rights to safety.”

Of the list of 12 countries that take in the most refugees, Germany is the only high-income state on a list that includes no other nations in Europe nor the United States.

Those attending the conference “have come together as people of faith because we care and we are concerned about what is going on in the world,” Thompson said. “We came to this conference with a purpose. What’s going on here? I believe we can do more.”

The Migration Policy Institute notes that over the past 42 years, the U.S. has lowered the ceiling for the number of migrants it will allow into the country to an all-time low. That number was more than 231,000 people in 1980; by 2021 it had fallen to 62,500 people, a year the nation admitted 11,400 people. The Biden administration has raised the ceiling to 125,000 for 2022.

“The United States is historically a safe haven for refugees,” said Thompson, who herself was born in Kingston, Jamaica. “What is making this difficult is our political climate. We are no longer opening doors the way we should and the way we did.”

With upwards of 80 million people looking for a home, Thompson devised a list of the ways faith communities “can impact what we are seeing.” The to-do list includes:

  • Strengthening our voice, especially on Capitol Hill and the White House and at the United Nations. “We say when we talk to our leaders, that’s the end of it,” Thompson said. “What does it mean to lend our voice to a global space that we can speak to what needs to happen globally as we attend to this refugee and migrant crisis? … As faith leaders in the U.S., we need to look at how we can be more active effecting change through the United Nations.”
  • Strengthening our commitments. “All of our faith communities start with love as a tenet,” Thompson said. “We all in some way talk about our neighbors, how we love the stranger and ways those in our faith communities take care of each other. How are we teaching this? If we aren’t talking about it, we are not strengthening the ways in which our communities can be involved.”
  • Strengthening our communities. “If we are part of the solution, making sure our communities are informed and prepared to meet the needs of refugees is of importance,” Thompson said. “Many of us have protested. We send letters and we are active to make sure change comes. Would your community host refugees? Would you be supportive if your church took in refugees? How can you ensure that if your [faith] community had to take in someone, that person would be welcomed and treated well and would experience the love of God poured out among us?”
  • Throwing open the doors of our churches and worshiping communities. “I know with the need in Ukraine and Afghanistan and other places, some of you have opened your pocketbooks,” Thompson said. But it’s time for communities of faith to step up their game. “What does it mean for our churches and places of worship to be safe places?” Thompson asked. “We aren’t in hopes of proselytizing but are in hope they will see God present in the midst of their need.”
  • Engaging in effective networks across denominations. “There is strength in numbers, and staffs are coming together in advocacy and resettlement,” Thompson said. Church World Service “has been a hub providing space for denominations to look at how we do this work together … If ever there was a time to be stronger, the time is now.”
  • Holding government officials to account. “It’s important that our leaders hear from us in ways that begin to change the narratives,” Thompson said. For example: in recent years we’ve seen “a lot of negative press around refugees,” along with attempts to add to the wall at the nation’s southern border. Such initiatives “are government driven,” Thompson said. “We can bring about change when we extend ourselves in ways that are deep and meaningful.”

Read other Presbyterian News Service accounts from the Together We Welcome Conference here, here,  here, here and here.

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