Union University Church
September 20, 2015
Reverend Laurie DeMott
You may not know his name, but you probably know his face, or at least the picture of his small body being cradled in the arms of a Coast Guard on a beach in Turkey. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he was three years old when he drowned, three years old when the boat that was carrying him, his five-year-old brother, and his mother, capsized as they tried to flee Syria and join family members who had taken refuge in Canada. Aylan Kurdi became the face of suffering, the face that awakened a world to the crisis of the Syrian refugees.
Over nine million refugees have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, and yet the world for the most part has been able to ignore the magnitude of Syria’s suffering because nine million is just a number. It is a mind boggling number, but it is a number nonetheless. Numbers are abstract constructs that can be added, subtracted, multiplied, divided, graphed, mapped, and solved, but most of us, leaving aside the statisticians and math professors, have no emotional relationship to numbers. Aylan, however, is a person. He has a name, a face, and a story and when we see his lifeless body cradled in the arms of the Turkish sailer, we imagine ourselves holding him, weeping over him, and having to tell his family that he is gone.
The human heart is designed to care for people one by one.
For decades, African-Americans have known that they are often unfairly treated by the judicial system but it is only recently that the topic has become part of the national conversation. Why? Because of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. You’ve heard their names. You may even be able to remember a little of their stories. The suffering of Black communities has been given a face and no matter what you thought about the events which brought those names to our consciousness, the issues are no longer abstract but ones that you know have an impact on real families and so suddenly you are able to imagine a mother’s tears, a wife’s grief.
The human heart is designed to care for people one by one.
Every time the media focuses on a single person’s suffering, voices rise in protest: “Where have you been? Why do you suddenly care about this man’s homelessness when thousands go homeless every day? Why do you care about this woman’s depression when untold numbers suffer from mental illness every day? Why do you care about Cecil the Lion when species are going extinct every day?” The prophets among us are frustrated by our inability to have compassion for causes, principles, and abstract suffering by the numbers; but the human heart is designed to care for people one by one. Most of us may be troubled in our minds by the injustices of society and the pain of its victims but it is no shame to admit that our hearts may just not be moved until we can put a face to suffering, until we can hold one person’s story in our mind’s eyes.
In the passage from Isaiah, God issues an invitation to the people: “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! … Incline your ear, and come to me; hear that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant.”
Isaiah was a prophet who spent his career trying to get the wealthy and the powerful of Israel to pay attention to the impoverished and hurting around him. In this passage, he issues an invitation to come together and sit with one another at the Lord’s table, to eat God’s bread together, to live on God’s word, and experience salvation through a community where all are equal before God. Jesus too, issued an invitation yet the difference between the invitation of Isaiah and the invitation given to us by Christ is like the difference between the nine million Syrian refugees and the one capsized boat that left little Aylan Kurdi lifeless on a beach. Isaiah sent out a general invitation, “Ho everyone,” but the problem with talking to everyone is that “everyone” becomes a faceless mass; it is an abstract concept. Everyone is “society”; everyone is “humanity,” everyone is “nine million people;” everyone is no one we know.
Jesus understood that the human heart is designed to care for people one by one and so he invited individuals, looking them in the eye and saying, “You, come and follow me,” and we know their faces. We remember their stories. There is Zacchaeus, that frustrated short little man; and Matthew, the outcast tax collector. There is Martha, flustering about in the kitchen, busy and irritated at her sister, and there’s Mary, ignoring Martha’s snappish temper so that she can listen to the words of Jesus. There is Nicodemus, the sincere Pharisee trying to make sense of Jesus’ words, and there is the rich young man who is able to understand but doesn’t think he can manage to do what Jesus wants. We know the story of Lazarus, the dear friend whose death moved Jesus to tears ; we can feel the wonder of his resurrection and his family’s joy when he steps out of the tomb. We can see the surprise of the Samaritan woman at the well, moved that Jesus would stoop to talk to her. And, of course, we know so well the faces of Peter, John, James, Mary Magdalene, names that we have heard for so long that they have become dear friends to us. We can step into their worlds and have compassion for their suffering, and joy at their salvation. Jesus came to save the world but he knew that the human heart is designed to care for people one by one and so he showed us the faces of the ones in need of salvation.
A spokesman for Bread for the World said, “One person dying of hunger is a tragedy; a thousand people dying of hunger is a statistic.” The prophets among us remind us that there is injustice which must be corrected, that our resources must be spread out more equitably, and that there are policies to be changed or laws to be rethought. They issue a universal invitation of salvation which we, as Christians, should support with our checkbooks and our programs. Yet many of us, when we are honest have to admit that statistics overwhelm our hearts and we end up feeling guilty because we do not feel more concerned. We want to cry out, “I’m tired of hearing about hunger. I’m weary of hearing about war. I don’t think I can stand one more story about the homeless!” Are we hypocrites for caring about one family burdened with grief while forgetting to pray for the other nine million refugees driven from their homes?
No, the human heart was designed to care for people one at a time.
In 1978, Vietnam experienced a refugee crisis similar to today’s Syrian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled their country, crowding in to leaky boats to try to make their way to safer countries, and, like the Syrian refugees of today, many of those boats capsized killing whole families. Those that did survive the passage often ended up in crowded refugee camps suffering from hunger and disease. One Vietnamese family spent their entire life savings to buy passage for their 12 year old daughter and 14 year old son. The parents stayed behind with their oldest daughter who was married, and their youngest son who was too young for the journey but they hoped that the two teens would be able to make it out and have a chance at a better life. Can you imagine what it was like for those parents, putting those teens on a boat and not knowing whether you would ever see them again?
The world referred to the refugees as the Vietnamese boat people, a term for the collective faceless suffering of displaced people. But those two teens had names: Anh and Quang. Anh and Quang, young teenagers who lived for a year at a Malaysian refugee camp. Anh, who at 12, spent that year learning English in the hope that maybe one day she would make it to America. Quang, who at 14 was lonely and heartsick from the responsibility of having to become a man in such horrendous circumstances. I know their names because in 1979, my parents saw a newscast on the boat people and decided to try to save the world one person at a time, or in this case two people at a time. Anh and Quang are my foster sister and brother. They arrived at our home in December of 1979 brought here by Catholic Family Services which was working to match foster families with refugees, and flew Anh and Quang from tropical Malaysia to western New York in the middle of winter. It was a culture shock for everyone but through my parents commitment and the teens dedication, eventually, Quang graduated from high school and got a job in Rochester. Anh, an amazing young woman, lived with my family until she was 21 so that she could earn her BA in chemistry at Geneseo State. She married a doctor and eventually was able to pay to bring the rest of her family over from Vietnam, set them up in a house and found them all jobs.
My parents couldn’t stop the flow of refugees from Vietnam or save all of the suffering of the world but they taught me that you can make a difference when you care — one person at a time.
Maybe you can’t stop the wars around the world but you can give up some of your time to help the student whose life is a mess. Maybe you can’t solve the problem of homelessness, but you can still volunteer to help build one home for one family in Allegany County. Maybe you can’t cure cancer but you can sit at the bedside of someone going through chemo and let them know they are not alone in their fight. Maybe you can’t fix the economy but you can buy your food at local shops and help keep a few small businesses healthy.
We are called to follow Christ and help save the world, so let’s save it together, one person at a time.