Friday, January 02, 2009

Life in the Diaspora

“So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.” Matthew 2:14

When we think of Christmas, one of the first images that comes to mind is the baby Jesus lying in a manger, sleeping peacefully under the watchful eyes of his parents while angels, shepherds, Magi, and even barnyard animals gather around to worship him. Such tranquil images often cause us to overlook the fact that this momentous event—the birth of our Lord—took place amidst great political, social, and economic turmoil.

We forget that the baby Jesus was born into a backwater province of the Roman Empire where strong anti-Roman sentiment characterized the feelings of Jewish peasants who were barely able to eek out a living after paying their share of taxes to Rome. Likewise, we overlook the brutal tactics employed by Roman rulers in order to insure that nobody—not even an innocent baby boy rumored to be a king—would challenge their hold on power. Thus, Joseph and Mary soon found themselves fleeing with their newborn to escape the politically-motivated slaughter of baby Jewish boys in Bethlehem.

While Matthew briefly records Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt and notes that, following the death of King Herod, they were able to return home to Palestine, he mentions nothing about their actual sojourn in Egypt itself. While we can’t be certain, it is not unrealistic to assume that Joseph and Mary might have taken refuge in the large Jewish expatriate community in Alexandria and, as was the case with Jewish migrant communities elsewhere throughout the empire, they undoubtedly faced the stigma of being foreigners in a Gentile world.

Twenty centuries later, Matthew’s account of the flight to Egypt continues to resonate with migrants around the world who have had to flee their homes due to political, social, and economic turmoil. And like the expatriate Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire (and beyond) during Jesus’ day, today’s migrant communities must also confront the stigma and discrimination so often inflicted upon them by the majority culture.

We first met Kevin two summers ago when a Haitian lady who lives across the street from our church came to register him, along with her own small children and grandchildren, for vacation Bible school. Later we learned that when he was just two years-old, Kevin’s pregnant mother was arrested by Bahamian immigration and, lacking proper documents, deported to Haiti. Since Kevin’s father, who had never married his mother, works on one of the Family Islands and only comes to Nassau once per year, this lady offered to take Kevin in to her already overcrowded home. While accepted into her home, Kevin has never really become a part of the family and, frequently, is blamed and severely beaten for the misdeeds of the other children.

Now six-years old, Kevin has been a regular participant in our weekly after-school homework program for the past two-years. Even though he is in the second-grade, Kevin—like many other public school children his age—is still unable to read. Despite his turbulent home life and poor academic performance, Kevin is surprisingly very pleasant and helpful. He is often the first child to arrive at the church and the last to leave, insisting on helping us to load and unload supplies from our car. And one night last summer when Estela stopped by the church to take care of some things for the next morning’s vacation Bible school, Kevin appeared out of nowhere and followed Estela around as if he were her bodyguard, refusing to leave her side until he saw that she had safely gotten in the car to drive away.

What does the future hold for Kevin? Will he learn to read? Will he someday be reunited with his mother and siblings in Haiti? Will he graduate from high school? Will he regularize his immigration status and find a job? As this year’s Christmas season comes to a close, let us not forget the many Haitian children just like Kevin who—like the Jewish migrants of Jesus’ day—routinely face hardships and discrimination because they are foreigners in a strange land.

This article originally appeared in News from Daniel and Estela Schweissing on 2 January 2009. The painting, titled "The Flight into Egypt," was done by Vittore Carpaccio in A.D. 1500.

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