"Coming To America: The Struggles and the Joys"

Meditation Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 25, 2009


     About twenty years ago when Lois and I lived on Capitol Hill, we decided to walk to the Cherry Blossoms that were at their peak around the Tidal Basin. As we strolled among the trees, we encountered something that was quite unexpected -- we did not find many people speaking English.  We recognized German, Spanish, various Asian and African languages.  There were also a number of languages that we did not recognize.  We always knew that America was the great melting pot of world cultures but we never had that understanding made as clear as it was that afternoon.           

     Regardless of what we think, believe or feel about people that are very different from us, the acceleration of cultures coming together in America is here to stay.  This process can be frightening for many people, but the process will also increase our awareness of what the future holds – the potential for developing a sense of being community among the world’s people.   

     America has vast opportunities everywhere.  Other nations have discovered this and have built their companies within our borders e.g., Toyota, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Ikea and Nestle to name a few.  Global expansion is also available to American companies.  This month Wal-Mart built its 100th store in mainline China.  Think of it -- all this globalization has occurred in our lifetime!

     For a number of people there are still enormous uncertainties and concerns about coming to America.  Humanity has not gotten past its appetite for tuning in to the various forms of destructive behavior committed by a miniscule number of people. 

     While spending six weeks in Yorkshire, England, I was asked by several people why the United States is so violent.  Such behavior in America by the few is what is marketed to people in other lands.  Hispanic young people can easily be maligned because of the violent acts of MS-13.  The perception of Muslims can be driven by the few whose politics of world domination make the headlines.  Christianity is frequently judged by the verbal or written statements made by those whose beliefs build more barriers to community than bridges. 

     Our problem comes from the way we allow our respective cultures to shape how we think, how we feel and, more importantly, how we perceive. We have become more aware of exactly what influences us.  Having the way we perceive fashioned by sensational headlines defies all logic and teachings of our respective faiths.  It would be like judging all Jews by the activities of Bernie Madoff.  I will tell you this:  there are thousands of Abe Pollins for every Bernie Madoff.  Another Jew, 2,000 years ago, could have his teachings summarized in three words, “Love One Another.”  There is not a religion in the world that would have a problem with that!   We are afraid to give on this level without first counting the costs. 

     There was a time when I disembarked from the Metro’s orange line train in Clarendon, Virginia.  I found a woman sobbing on the platform.  It was just the two of us and she looked at me with intense terror in her eyes.  I approached her very cautiously.  In trying to learn how I might help her, I came to realize that she could not speak English.   

     She was shaking in fear as she blurted out two words, “Metro Center.”  I pointed to the large map on the subway wall and used my fingers to count the six stops she needed to retrace.  Then I guided her to the other side of the tracks and again counted on my fingers six times and said, “Metro Center.” She nodded that she understood. 

     As I waited with her for the next train to arrive, I could tell that her fear of me had faded.  She started talking to me in her native tongue.  I asked, “Soviet Union?”  She nodded her head “yes.”  Once she was inside the train, she said to me, “America is good.” 

     I have thought about that incident for years because of what I knew she must have been taught about Americans during the cold war days when we were considered to be her country’s mortal enemies.  We have to remember that the Soviet Union only began to unravel in 1991.  If we want to understand the fears of some people coming to America, all we have to do is multiply these kinds of perceptions over cultural lines and it will deepen our understanding of the problems that some immigrants face. 

     Every time I have traveled to other countries, I have always been greatly surprised and impressed by the courtesies and kindnesses extended to us by the people of the host country.  Most people are eager to share their hospitality even though I once had children throw stones at me when I was in Jordan. That experience reinforced for me how easily we can be taught to dislike people without ever getting to know them.   

     Tomorrow, we will be celebrating our Thanksgiving for the standard of living the American melting pot has provided.  All of us come from families that migrated here.  Lois’ family came from Denmark.  My family came from Switzerland.  All of us have a story to tell. Just think of what our mutual cooperation has created. 

     There are a near endless number of shopping malls, state-of-the-art hospitals, highly- skilled members of the medical community, colleges and universities, public libraries, rail systems, inter-state highways, mosques, churches, synagogues and temples all within easy driving distance.  We have the largest economy in the world.  For those who want to achieve and take advantage of the opportunities that are here, they can.   

     Many years ago, a friend of mine was asked to host two Russian women who had never been to America even though both were fluent in English.  She picked them up at BWI and the pair stayed in her home for three days while they attended an international conference.  Mimi adjusted her work schedule in order to shuttle them back and forth to the conference.  When she picked them up after the first day, she stopped by the Giant food store to buy a few items for dinner. 

     When the three women entered the store, two stood still because they were shocked by what they saw.  The Russian women could not fathom that everyday the store was restocked with all the varieties of meat, breads, soups, spices and dairy products that any reasonable person could possibly desire.  When we complain about the prices, we are somewhat insensitive about what life is like for millions of people in other cultures where what we take for granted does not exist.  Remember that tomorrow as you gather around a table for your meals.  All of us are recipients of what a diverse community of immigrants has created and produced. 

     Centuries ago, a group of Native Americans sat down with a group of Europeans and shared a common meal. It was the Native Americans that introduced the Europeans to turkey, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, green beans, baked beans, maple syrup and pumpkin. 

     For one brief moment in time, cultures came together in peace.  For one brief moment in time, the sense of community was taking place in the spirit I believe God intended. The potential to live in community was hardwired into all of us by our Creator.  All we have to do is give that potential a chance to grow.  When we allow that understanding to become visible, we will be reinforcing what former Beatle, John Lennon, sang years ago, “. . . and the world will be one.”   I hope all of you have a gratitude-filled Thanksgiving.