Southeast of downtown Los Angeles are five (now 6) small cities where blue collar/white collar middle class, mostly white families raised their children until the early 1970s. I grew up in this part of LA County. In a matter of one decade the neighborhoods changed due to countless sociological factors no one could anticipate or navigate.
A snapshot from that time might look something like this. Gangs had always been in the mix, but now they were connected to organized crime. Once they carried knives; now they had guns. Schools were among the best in the district; now they were overcrowded, students stuffed into non airconditioned, smelly bungalows for some classes. Drugs became more prevalent. One family I know left because a teenager was threatened after reporting drug activity in school. Violence inside schools was a daily occurrence. (I know; I was there.) Parents who thought they chose a safe place to raise their children feared for the children’s safety and moved out. Some moved to the Pacific Northwest; most moved 5 miles east to Downey.
Granted, racism played its part in the lack of capacity to address the real problems faced by all those cities. Fear of people “not like me” played its part. There was also genuine fear that the situation was beyond anyone’s ability to impact individually. The only sane option felt by many parents was to protect their children by leaving.
This is what I imagine approximates in some way what parents now fleeing Central American countries are feeling. When faced with daily violence, the violent death of family members, extortion by gangs, threats to their lives and their children’s lives, and so much more horror, the only sane option is to leave. Even if you don’t know if leaving will be better, flight is really the only sane option. It’s not much different from the moment a victim of domestic violence has when the realization comes, “If I don’t leave, I or my children will be killed.”
If you wonder why “those people” would come to the United States, perhaps you haven’t yet learned about the circumstances that would motivate them to walk thousands of uncertain miles in the company and safety of a large group of other motivated people to find sanctuary somewhere. The scale of their suffering and vulnerability is so much greater than what we experienced in southeast LA in the 1970s, but the genesis of both is the need to protect one’s children.
And now, a man has murdered 11 people in their house of worship for being Jews who welcomed the refugee. The man ranted on social media just before the attack about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization devoted to helping refugees of all faiths find their feet in a new country. One of the congregations meeting in the facility was a supporter of the refugee work.
There is a story told in the gospel of Matthew at the very beginning. Mary and Joseph were warned to not return home because the life of their child, Jesus, was in danger. They fled to Egypt becoming refugees in a foreign land. None of the other gospels tell this story. It makes me wonder who in Matthew’s community were refugees. Why would it be important for the community to whom Matthew told the Jesus story to know that their savior started life as a refugee?
The cause of God’s compassion in the world calls us to identify with people who are suffering. May we learn to follow this call on the way with Jesus.