Tara and I sing with the Midland Chorale, a choral group that presents a number of concerts throughout the course of a year. This fall, we are singing a new piece by Mark Hayes called “The American Spirit.” In three movements, it tracks our nation’s historical emphases on self-reliance, individualism, equality, justice, optimism, and dreams. The second of these movements draws the bulk of its lyrics from a sonnet entitled “The New Colossus,” written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus.
The civil war in Syria began in 2011. For the past four years, violence, oppression, and despair have marked the lives of everyday Syrians. You have probably seen the news, especially in the past month, of how many people have fled from their homes in Syria because of the ongoing conflict. Presently, some four million Syrians have left their country, fleeing – often on foot or via traffickers – to nearby places like Turkey and Lebanon, as well as more distant nations such as Germany and Egypt.
In her poem, Emma Lazarus writes about the millions of immigrants who came into the United States during its early years, especially those through Ellis Island at the port at New York. The first eight lines of her sonnet read as follows:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.”
Emma Lazarus recognized the role that the United States was playing in the world: one of welcoming strangers, immigrants, foreigners from lands of despair and oppression into a land of freedom and opportunity. She wrote this poem in conjunction with the building of the Statue of Liberty, that “mighty woman with a torch” who would be installed and dedicated in New York City as a gift from the people of France in 1886.
Many European nations have wrestled with the question of Syrian refugees in the past month. How many will we accept? How long will we provide for them? Will they pay taxes? What about the religious, political, economic, and social consequences of having so many outsiders in our land?
One photograph ignited the conversation on a worldwide scale. Aylan (or Alan) Kurdi was a three year old Syrian boy whose family was fleeing their homeland, headed for Canada. Aylan drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and his lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey, where poignant photographs were taken and shared around the world earlier this month. Aylan’s story has put a human face – a face of innocence and suffering – on the Syrian refugee crisis.
More than anything, Aylan’s death has caused many nations, including our own, to ask, “What will we do about this?”
The entire poem appears on a bronze plaque in the Statue of Liberty Museum. Emma Lazarus’s words in the final six lines are probably more familiar to you than the earlier lines:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
As our choir has sung these words in rehearsals this month, my mind and heart have been moved to ponder the refugee crisis we are witnessing on the other side of the ocean across which the Statue of Liberty stares with mild eyes. How meaningful are this sonnet’s words. How important it is for “huddled masses” and people who feel like “wretched refuse” to find a new, safe, welcoming home. How significant it is for many nations, including our own, to invite the wanderer, the pilgrim, the exile to become one of us.
As Pope Francis reminded us last week, we are a nation of immigrants. But most of us now are no longer immigrants ourselves. Now it is our turn, rather than running toward the arms of the State of Liberty, to extend our own arms toward those who seek a new life among us. This is not just about immigration; this is about life as the church, life as missionaries, life as ministers of God’s grace through the love of Jesus Christ.
I find it to be an interesting coincidence that the author of “The New Colossus” shares her last name with a Bible character: one whom Jesus loved deeply, one whose suffering and death Jesus mourned, one whom Jesus restored to new life. (See John 11.)
Perhaps we imitate Jesus when we sacrifice to restore our neighbors to new life, as well.
What will we do about this?