Being Here

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If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark within and without
And there is a light, don’t let it go out

– U2

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toy box. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

The world is full of so many lonely souls. That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Perhaps this explains the fervor with which I approach the ongoing confrontation between fear and human decency that is the Syrian refugee crisis. I have been there and done that. And I would gladly do it again. In a heartbeat. My friendship with the Borza kids (there was even some teasing about a young crush I might or might not have had on Diana) is a foundational memory, one of the basic building blocks of who I am today.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not about religion or spirituality. The part played in this story by my dad’s church is purely incidental, the conduit whereby I was connected with the Other, who turned out to be not quite as Other as we sometimes expect. Really, this is about recognition: staring into the face of a stranger only to discover it’s your own face in disguise. A refugee by any other name…is Me.

The events of the last few days have yanked this memory back into the forefront of my brain. I’m glad for that: it keeps my humanity alive, in the face of overwhelming odds. It reminds me of the blood that runs, and the hearts that beat alike, in their chests and mine. We are brothers, sisters, prójimos. We are One.

I understand the fear; I understand the hatred, the instinct that begs for the immediate release of violent and fiery retaliation. These voices whisper to me as much as to anyone else. Which is why this is so important: freedom is meaningless until we willingly set it aside for the sake of others. Courage is just a word until we face a threat, and act anyway.

The Borzas call to me from the past, and the Syrians call to me in the present. What is my answer? I am here.

I can’t just urge my governor to reverse his stance on this issue unless I’m willing to step up and reach out. I am here.

These people need friends, shelter, guidance, hands extended in welcome. I am here.

Governor Abbott: Need a sponsor?

I am Here.

The Internet Stranger

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut this is a song
for strangers in a car…
Baby, maybe that’s all
we really are.

– Marc Cohn

We don’t meet strangers. We make them.

I recently met some folks, previously known to me only via the Blogs, for the first time, and like an Austen character, I was announced upon entry as “The Internet Stranger.” (I am the Scarlet Pimpernel!!) I felt, on the instant, as if I should be caped and hooded, I should be Batman. Or at least the slightest bit mysterious. Stalking imperiously around the house, channeling Christopher Lee, laughing like the Count from Sesame Street, with constantly cocked eyebrow and penetrating stare.

But that would have been weird…

…And I digress. On reflection (which at the very least means I’m not a vampire), I ask myself: what is a stranger?

Are all the people we’ve never met “strangers”? Conversely, are all the people we already have, not? What makes someone a stranger to me? When we were children, it was simple: a stranger was some guy with a van, or anyone who offered us candy on the street. But as adults, the term is hardly so clear-cut.

Just yesterday, a fellow blogger noted that one of my older posts seemed like a letter I had written to her well before I even  knew who she was. That got me to thinking again. What if it was? Not to her, specifically, but to all the “Internet strangers” out there, written in the hopes that some of them might not be so strange after all.

This same blogger, in a recent post, asked an interesting question: faced with the ominous silence that often accompanies a blog post, why do we blog instead of just writing in a journal? Why do we keep putting it all out there, even when no one seems to be listening? Maybe this is the secret: diaries are great if you’re Anne Frank or Jan Brady, but at the end of the day, they are simply mute. You can pour your heart into them, but they will never offer anything in return. With blogging, there is hope. Hope that one day, you may get a “Polo!” in response to your “Marco!”

In blogging, we embrace an idea: the idea that strangers are only friends we haven’t met yet. Anne Shirley said it best: “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

Some people–family, so-called friends, co-workers–have known me for years, and don’t know me from Adam. Then there are others, whom I’ve never met, who’ve known me since the day I was born, and I them. We just don’t know it yet.

So, the next time that metaphorical car pulls up alongside, the door swings open, and a “stranger” beckons from inside, in the words of Marc Cohn, “are you gonna get in, or are you gonna stay out?”

Because that stranger may turn out to be a life-long friend you never knew you had.

The Beggar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe approached me
slowly,
cautiously,
eyes downcast, and
in the mirror,
I approached him–

future, present, past colliding
in that moment of
connection,
resurrection and reversal.
All is universal, in the pause between
two heartbeats, when one meets
another, and that other is

oneself. He approached me,
eyes downcast,
and when at last he raised them,
I saw they were my own.