“Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Luke 16:26
This past week I was in a Bible study with a number of folks in the Presbytery including Ekram Kachu, who is pastoring the 1st Arabic Worshipping Community. Ekram preaches to this community of Sudanese refugees as well as ministers to the larger refugee community here in Des Moines. She does amazing work witnessing to Jesus through her compassionate ministry not only to Christians but to Muslims as well. I am always enlightened by her perspectives on Biblical texts each week.
We were studying the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), a challenging biblical text that raises particularly troubling questions for those of us more easily identified with the rich man than poor Lazarus.
In the course of our discussion, she spoke of how her community was feeling much fear these days. She shared how many of her people have been having painful and degrading encounters with different people in grocery stores and restaurants. The common denominator being an experience of alienation and dismissal expressed in rude words and actions.
She shared a personal story that had happened within the past week. She, her twelve-year-old daughter, and some Sudanese friends were going to the store and, after waiting for another car to leave, pulled into a parking space. As they entered the store, an older white man accosted them and physically took hold of her daughter. He yelled at them that they had taken his parking space. He told them they should “Leave the country and go back home.”
I found myself filled with various emotions. Shocked and flabbergasted that something like this happens in Des Moines. Anger at how someone can treat another human being in such a way. But most of all, grief that we now live in a place and time where an atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and antagonism towards the “Other” causes some of the most vulnerable in our communities to live in fear.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by Ekram’s story. Recently we have had racist chants at a local High School Basketball game; a tweet by a prominent politician stating “we cannot restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”; and a note left at a mosque in Des Moines that warns them that we “will do to them what Hitler did to the Jews.”
I would like to think these are isolated incidences reflective of fringe elements of our society. But that perspective reflects more my position of privilege where I can dismiss such stories without really changing anything. It maintains a great chasm between me and the “Other” whether they be an immigrant or a Muslim. That attitude does not honor Ekram’s story.
Maybe the best way to honor such a story and begin to cross the divide that exists in our communities is to embrace her story and let that story change us. Ekram honors her own story as she continues to compassionately care for her immigrant community despite living in a time of fear. There are people who honor such a story by not silently standing by when others shame immigrants. We need to honor such a story by seeking out the refugee and immigrant among us and truly listening to their story. In this way, we make Ekram’s story our story.