After our Nepali class yesterday I was able to spend several hours with a neighbor from SouteastAsia in their apartment. Somehow the conversation got serious and we began talking about integration to life in the US, the caste system, religion, and the future. The conversation was started by the mother of the house expressing her sadness over the thousands of Bhutanese refugees who remain in Bhutan. On one level she was saddened by the cutting of aid from the United Nationals High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other NGOs. On another level she believed the refugees who are staying in the camp are to blame, realizing they have no future other than third-country resettlement.
Her daughter and her had differing opinions on the situation which led us to talking about how immigrants (particularly) refugees) adjust to life in America. So many in our neighborhood are settled in apartment complexes that become ethnic enclaves and a new identity in an unfamiliar place. If a person sends their younger kids to the store and to work, a person really can survive in these sub-cultures with relatively little integration into American society. This is so untrue for most of the new immigrants that I know. At an accelerated rate, people are trying to adjust and find their place. Nevertheless, the adjustment is difficult anyhow you spin it.
At the Smith’s house (a made up name) one of the daughters began to discuss some of the negative aspects of her culture. When she began to vent I asked pretty direct questions on how she felt about such things. We talked about positive and negative aspects of Hinduism, superficiality, and the general lack of trust that permeates the community. She said that she was confident that her culture would continue to be lost, or at the least, blended into American society. Her neighbors who have had kids in the US are raising children that don’t know their parents language too well. The caste system is being broken down in our society. An identity that our friends have known their whole lives isn’t really allowed to manifest itself in our country.
“Everything is different here” is a phrase that I hear on a reoccurring basis. And this is not in isolation in our neighborhood. I would say that about half, if not more than half, of our neighborhood has been forced to resettle to a new country where “everything is different”. They can’t “just go back to their country” as so many of us assume. There is no “back” for many who have immigrated. This “everything is different” life is here to stay and our new friends are left to figure it out or bust. Mental illness, substance abuse, and gang related issues are very high in these moments of dealing with trauma and resettlement.
And these issues don’t just surface in a vacuum. Years, sometimes decades, of loss are being sorted out as people adjust. Some who are from Buddhist and Hindu backgrounds are now finding little room for their Hindu practices to take place in a way that they understand. I asked Shelly (again a fake name) yesterday what she thinks will happen once Hinduism continues to fade away? “What will you fill it with?” I asked. Silence, followed by “I don’t know.” Another long pause and then I said, “Life from there to here is extremely confusing. Sorry.”
Some of you were waiting for the spiritual breakthrough. The conversion. The turn or burn moment. I guess I’m kind of waiting for that moment too. But my dear friends are still wrestling. They still have all kinds of questions about all kinds of issues, some of which are religious. I would dare say that the whole experience is much more spiritual than one might think.
Jesus and his marvelous grace aren’t magic. It doesn’t remove all the memories and tragedy. It doesn’t even necessarily make adjustment to life here have fewer failures. But the transformation Christ brings does change everything. It changes the way we look at these experiences, how we respond, and to what level we hope. There is only one message and hope that we can continue to offer . . . one Kingdom into whom the Church invites people.
Kingdom transformation in a community that is majority newcomers is very difficult to systemically think about. Most of the folks in the neighborhood think they have little to offer and believe they don’t make a good starting point to bring community development and revitalization. Whether we like it or not (I like it), they will be the initiators in this they are the majority and it will be the Somali, the Hmong, the Karen, and the Bhutanese who lead much of the efforts to improve the hood. They are the neighborhood. The rich, powerful, majority culture made a decision to leave the neighborhood long ago. I think about how Jesus chose some of the most unlikely, uneducated, and simplest of guys to follow him and eventually change the world. I look forward to the days to come of how our neighborhood is transformed by the Kingdom of God in using simple, unlikely folks.
So, while all the political jargon oozes off the lips of so many regarding immigration, I can’t help to wonder how many meals we would consider to have with a refugee. To really hear their journey. To listen. To sit. To just shut up and sit. There is a backside of immigration that often gets drowned out. Most in my neighborhood are here legally and came on a refugee visa where there is no “going back” to another country. Diversity has banged on our door and our new neighbors, no fault of their own, have brought a traumatic, yet hopeful story of endurance to our streets.
Will we sit long enough to hear it? They are the neighborhood. They are us.