“We Still Dream” | Meeting Refugee Youth

Dipesh (center) with other Bhutanese refugee youth from Nepal, resettled in Pittsburgh.

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

The refugee camp was a “bubble of hopelessness,” Dipesh said. A place of not knowing – not knowing how to dream, not knowing how to grow.  And when that camp burned down, too, he was left with nothing.  Those “flames stole my hope,” he said, and all he could do is grab his sister and run.  Again.

Originally a Bhutanese refugee from Nepal, Dipesh is one of 27 young refugee leaders gathered at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for the US Refugee Youth Consultation.  Valentin from Honduras (now sporting a fedora and living in Seattle – we compared notes about the mountains and the rain).   Jamal from Somalia.  Aya from Sudan.  Tuku from Ethiopia.  Kalisa from Rwanda.

Each of them had a story like the one Dipesh told.  Heartbreaking stories.  Inspiring stories.  They all had run away – sometimes with their families, sometimes alone.  They were trying to escape war and persecution.  And they left everything behind.

After years in camps with almost no hope, years more of asylum applications and security checks, they landed in cities across the US – from Pittsburgh to Denver to Fargo.  And they faced new challenges here, too.

School systems that asked for a transcript (sorry, they didn’t bring that when fleeing the soldiers).  Teachers who had no idea what is a refugee.  Endless bullying by peers who made fun of their accent color of their skin.

Bullying and discrimination were their biggest enemies – dampening their spirits, forcing isolation, preventing them from reaching their potential. “I tried so hard to hold back the tears,” one person said.  They longed for respect, friendship, and someone who would take the time to understand them.

This consultation was part of a global effort by UNHCR to better understand the needs of refugee youth.  These young leaders were articulate, passionate and insightful.  And already they are doing their part – taking charge and empowering others:

  • Dipesh and his friends created the Children of Shangri-Lost – a website with poetry and videos that tell the stories of refugees.
  • Aya wants to promote the American Friends program, which matches refugee youth with English-speaking hosts, who can help new arrivals navigate the unfamiliar realities in America – from winter clothes to traffic lights. And just to be their friend. (I’m embarrassed that I never heard of this program).

These stories of these young leaders offered a poignant, heart-breaking and inspirational glimpse into the lives of refugees.  Resilient and strong.  Vulnerable and struggling.  Juggling school and work and family, learning English and adjusting to a culture so different from their own.

Besides the stories, I was struck by the places where these young leaders live.  Kansas City, Missouri.  Fargo, North Dakota.  Worcester, Mass.  Salt Lake City, Utah.  Portland, Maine.  Los Angeles.  All around us are young people like Dipesh, and Aya, and Tuku and Kalisa and Rusul and Tania and Engoma and Jimmy.

Young people looking for a friend – a welcome – a chance at life … because, as Dipesh said, “despite everything, we still dream.”

Learn more:
Episcopal Migration Ministries,
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service,


Return to God – We’re Here for You (My First “Ashes to Go”)

Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, DSC04323with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. – Joel  2

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him – Luke 15

I was prepared to be underwhelmed.  The raucous Facebook debates and snarky commentaries (like this latest in the Living Church) left me suspicious of “Ashes to Go.”  I was prepared to feel let down by the hype, prepared to agree that “take out” sacramental acts were indeed the equivalent of spiritual junk food – alluring, but ultimately unsatisfying.

But the Spirit had something else in store.  On a frigid winter day, with many layers under my alb and a trusty verger and seminarian by my side, I put ashes on the foreheads of nearly 200 souls at the Capitol South metro station in Washington, DC.

They were lawyers and government workers, tourists and interns (lots and lots of interns).  A custodian at the National Archives.  A security guard from the Library of Congress.  A Pentagon worker who missed early mass “because of an emergency briefing about ISIS.”  Whole families away from their home churches, on college tours and vacations.

There was Tammi, who lives on the street near the Capitol.  In addition to ashes, she was hoping for a cup of coffee and a blessing.  “What should I pray for today?” I naively asked her.  “I need everything, Father,” she said with an exhausted smile.

Some others came with tears.  Some with smiles.  Some with elaborate excuses about why they missed church.  Some admitting they hadn’t been in a very, very long time.  Many with heads bowed and eyes closed.  At times, there was a line five or six people long.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Beloved child of God, walk in peace this day and always.”

With the ashes, we gave a booklet of prayers.  And over and over, people said “Thank you.  Thank you for being here.”  Or they simply nodded, with a weary look that said silently: I needed this; I needed you here today

But what should I say back?  “You’re welcome” seemed too tame a response to the moment we just shared.  I found myself responding, over and over again, “We are here for you.”

We are here for you, right where you needed us – on this one day a year when we put dirt on our faces to remind us just how crazy our lives have become, how out of control, how far from God’s dream for us.

We are here for you – on this day when our protective masks are tarnished, when the dirty mortality behind our power suits and sunglasses gets revealed for all the world to see.  The day we remember that Tammi and I are equal before God, beloved creations, dust from dust.  The day when God calls us ALL back home.

“The people who forget our common mortality—and by extension our common humanity—are usually those of us in positions of power,” my colleague Sarah Monroe reminds us in her blog, A Wandering Minister.  “In situations of oppression, when people begin to lose hope, there is hope in words that remind us that no human person or institution lasts forever. That oppression itself cannot last forever.”

For me, there was power in “Ash Wednesday on the Street.”  (Maybe “Ashes-to-Go” just needs a re-branding).  Power in naming fragility in the halls of government.  Power in breath and touch.  Power in the awkwardness of literally standing in front of people on their daily commute, with dirt in hand, saying by our presence: “Return to God” AND “We are here for you.”

And for those who came to receive, power in accepting the invitation to stop, turn around, and publicly undertake an act of worship.  This seems to be what Ash Wednesday is all about.

There are limitations, for sure.  There is no guarantee that any one of those 200 ash-covered souls will do more than stop for a moment on the sidewalk.  No guarantee that those ashes will lead to prayer, or fasting, or giving alms; no guarantee that they will prompt a conversion that will motivate the ash-covered one to take on God’s desired fast of justice and mercy.

But I know it was right for us to be there, for me to be there.  It was right for the church to ease the first step, to clear the way for a first turn back toward God.  Lord knows the journey of faith is a struggle.  That sacrifice and challenge lie ahead.

But it begins with a return, a possibility of a different future.  Like the prodigal father in the parable, I believe Jesus would want us to run out ahead of the returning one, to be ready with a smile and an embrace.  “I am here for you.”

Return, because of God’s steadfast love, the prophet Joel says.  Turn, because there is mercy.  Repent, because there is grace.

I understand the desire for commitment.  I hear the critique that ashes to go are cheap grace, but I think the opposite is true.  At last at Capitol South, I saw visibly the repentance, the turning.  Looking up from their phones.  Taking their headphones off.  Looking me in the eye.  Allowing an unknown priest to mark their bodies with a sign of mortality.  Sometimes, with a tear.  Sometimes, with a smile.

Because we were there, because the church cared enough about them to stand in the cold and stand in their way.  Because of this, they could take a first step. It was just a beginning, for sure, but an important one, because commitment comes after the turning, and after the embrace by the grace of God.

I hope the people of St. Mark’s will be out on the streets way more than once a year.  Not just at the subway, all dressed up in alb and stole, with ashes and prayer on offer.  But in the alleys and cafes, the bus stops and heating grates, the corridors of power and the custodial rooms; blessing, loving, challenging, organizing, uniting the people of God. In our common mortality, our common blessedness, our common mission.

But first, return to God, knowing that God is there for you – and so are we.

#AshesToGo #HereForYou #ReturnToGod

The Danger of Broken Hearts

“Our hearts break at this week’s continued violence, which has touched the Kids4Peace community in direct and personal ways. Kids4Peace was born in a time of pain and fear, when all hope seemed to be gone. It is my prayer that we will face this moment together, in honesty and faith. May God strengthen us in the days ahead.” – Fr. Josh Thomas

Our hearts break.  Those were the only words I could find this week, as a cascade of tragedy swept across the Holy Land.  Children dead.  Families mourning.  Streets ablaze.  Bloodthirsty cries for revenge.  Friends afraid to leave their homes.  The city of peace divided even more than before, with no sense of what the next day — or hour — would bring.

Our hearts break.  Those words opened dozens of statements by NGO’s and political leaders, including one I wrote for Kids4Peace.  Our hearts were — and still are — broken and crushed by the weight of human suffering.  Pierced by tears of loss.  Shattered by fear at the brutality we human beings can unleash on one another.  For me, far away in the United States, my heart was torn by distance; cut off from those people and places who have become so dear to me.

But broken hearts are dangerous, too.  Our spirits become fragile and our emotions raw.  We are quick to cast blame on the ones who hurt us.  We feel compelled to take sides.  We are vulnerable to the power of long-suppressed rage.  We discover fears deeper than we had imagined.  We feel the seductive lure of vengeance and the paralyzing temptation to withdraw.  Up close, it comes in bullets and stones, chants and blows.  At a distance, it comes through vicious words and festering silences.

In these days of broken hearts, we can be changed in another way.   Christian spiritual teachers have long said that penthos, the tears of a broken heart, are the gateway to change. One scholar describes it as “a grief that leads to a determination to act.”  When our defenses are stripped away, when we confront with honesty the reality of our lives (and of our world), we can discover a new compassion for others and a flood of new energy, welling up from the very life of God.

This kind of broken heart is dangerous, too.  It will change us.  We can no longer be (willfully) blind to suffering.  We can no longer hide behind the protective shell of the status quo.  We will need to confront our own complicity in evil, the excuses we make for ourselves and others.  We will need to speak honestly, to listen deeply, and to feel the weight of pain.

And there is so much pain.  I fear that more tears will flow in the coming weeks, and that many more hearts will break before they are healed.    I only pray that some of us will allow our hearts to break with compassion.