Last Tuesday, a massive fire destroyed a thirty-six-unit apartment complex in Columbus, Ohio. Most of the complex’s residents were recently resettled refugees from Bhutan, with other residents originally from Somalia and Mexico. While the exact cause of the fire is still unknown, the Columbus Fire Department says that it appears to have been arson.
While, thankfully, no one was killed in the incident, dozens of families have lost everything. For refugees who fled persecution and violence in their own country, then endured years of deplorable conditions in refugee camps, the experience has been uniquely traumatic. “They’ve come over here with very little,” says World Relief Columbus director Kay Lipovsky, who knows many of the families affected. “Now, they have nothing.” World Relief Columbus, along with local churches, the Red Cross, and other groups are mobilizing to help support these families, finding new housing and replacing lost furniture, clothing, and food. If any word characterizes the refugees among whom I live, it is resilience, and I am confident that these brave men, women, and children will rebuild their lives one again. (If you’d like to help, you can make a financial contribution online or, to donate items in the Columbus area, contact World Relief Columbus at 614-337-2448).
As a colleague told me about the horrific fire on Wednesday morning—and about the concern (still under investigation) that it could have been a hate crime—a strange fear came over me. I’ve lived for the better part of the last decade in a low-income apartment complex that sounds a lot like the complex that was burned down last week: most of my neighbors are refugees, some from Bhutan, many from Burma, some from Somalia or Sudan. Many others are Mexican immigrants. It’s a glorious place to live, filled with energy, children, and a diversity of experiences. I’ve never felt unsafe living there. But the speculation that the fire in Columbus might have been set intentionally by someone who disdains the ethnicity or religion of certain residents of the neighborhood caused me to recoil: if someone wanted to target immigrants or Muslims or ethnic minorities in my area, they would probably focus on my apartment complex. I went home and checked the battery on our smoke alarm.
I hope and pray that the authorities ultimately determine that the fire had nothing to do with antagonism toward any group, but rather that it really was an accident or some sort of a juvenile prank gone wrong. Sadly, though, it’s not a crazy idea that someone might target an apartment complex of Bhutanese, Somali, or Mexican immigrants because of their ethnicity, their presumed religion, or their suspected legal status. I was in Wisconsin on a family vacation three weeks ago when a shooter with ties to white supremacist groups opened fire at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. The following week, in two separate events here in suburban Chicago, a gun was shot into a mosque and a homemade explosive device was thrown into an Islamic school; fortunately, no one was physically harmed, but the Muslim community around us is understandably afraid. Nationally, the number of hate crimes targeted at Latino immigrants has been on the rise over the past several years.
Only a minute fraction of a percentage of Americans would ever turn to violence to harm those who are different from them, but I worry that the language we use to describe immigrants or those from other religious traditions—sometimes even amongst nice Christian people—exacerbates these incidences of targeted violence. When people presume—wrongly—that most Muslims are somehow associated with terrorism or talk about undocumented immigrants as an “invasion,” we invite irrational fears. When such language percolates obsessively in the mind of someone who is already unstable, the response can be tragic.
As Christians, our response should not just be tolerance of those different than us—though that might be a good start. We are commanded to love our neighbors. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear that our “neighbor” is not merely those who live near us or look and talk and believe as we do: the Jews who heard Jesus’ story, for the most part, despised the Samaritans. They were ethnically different; their theology was wrong. But Jesus makes the Samaritan in his story the model of neighborly love, and associates with Samaritans, lovingly pointing them to hope and eternal life.
The folks at Sojourners and the World Evangelical Alliance are running a campaign focused on this core Christian teaching, purchasing billboards that remind people—Christians, especially—to “love your Muslim neighbors” and to “love your Sikh neighbors.” At a time when some self-professed Christians think about immigrants—whether because they practice a different religion, lack legal status, or are of a different ethnicity, language or culture—as individuals to be feared, the command to acknowledge them as our neighbors and to respond with genuine love is radical in some circles. It was countercultural in Jesus’ time, too (the disciples wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village, not to extend them love and share with them the hope they had found in Jesus) but it is the only option for a genuine follower of Jesus.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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