By Rev. Donna Fowler-Merchant
Psalm 41: 7
All who hate me whisper together about me;
they imagine the worst for me.
Psalm 34: 8
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.
Matthew 19: 13-14 13
Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
On April 12, 2001, Scott and I appeared in court in Arkhangelsk, Russia to adopt our son and daughter, Sergei and Natasha. We flew home a few days later, and because of a law signed by President Clinton, they became US citizens upon entry to the country at JFK in New York. The church I was serving then, Haymount United Methodist Church, had thrown showers for them, and the congregation, as well as our families, were impatiently awaiting their arrival. One friend acquired both a Russian and an American flag, which he brought to the airport. That gesture went a long way towards making our kids feel welcome, honoring both sides of their cultural inheritance. They will always be Russian; they will also always be American.
And yet here we are, 18 years later, in an America that is more xenophobic than I could ever have imagined. Both of my children have heard plenty of anti-immigrant mumbling, and they have even been targeted because of their Russian birth. We adopted them because we felt called by God to parent them, and we hoped to give them opportunities and a life that would not otherwise have been possible. We also raised them to be kind and respectful of others who might seem different from them, and we are happy that they have always honored diversity as a gift from God.
Almost a year ago, Natasha called me, quite upset. She is now living in another state, and she was trying to get a driver’s license there. When she presented her birth certificate at the DMV, the official scornfully wrinkled up her nose and sarcastically announced, “That’s Russian! I can’t read that!” while handing it back to her with great disdain. Natasha said, “Mama, everybody stopped talking and stared at me like I was a freak. That was the first time I ever felt like I wasn’t a real American.”
My heart broke, hearing her say this. I tried to console her, reminding her that she is every bit as much an American as I am, and I assured her that we’d get it all straightened out and that she’d get her new license. But I was at a loss for words to explain to her why someone who doesn’t even know her would immediately dislike and distrust her because of the place of her birth.
We are better than this. Americans are better than this. And Christians above all are better than this. At least we’re supposed to be. I’ve always loved the words Emma Lazarus penned for the Statue of Liberty in her poem “The New Colossus,” and I love the words Jesus spoke to his disciples when they tried to shoo the little ones away from him. Luke says, in the KJV, “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.'”
The English language has changed in the intervening centuries, and “suffer” at that time meant “allow,” so Jesus was telling the disciples to let the children come to him, and furthermore, he held them up as exemplifying the reign and realm of God. I have no doubt that he is very displeased with the way so many of his children are suffering in the modern sense of the word. I just wonder if enough of us are going to speak for the voiceless and if we’re going to welcome them in Christ’s name. And so I pray and I cry, not just for my children but for all of them. For they are ALL our children, and they shouldn’t have to suffer.
Pray: O Lord Jesus, who reached out to the least of these, who held up children as an example of your coming kingdom and who warned against putting stumbling blocks in their way, open our hearts wide so that we may love and cherish all your children from every corner of the globe. Give us holy boldness to stand up for them even when it isn’t the popular thing to do, and forgive us for the times when we remain silent. Amen.