Yesterday my good friend Luis and I drove to Santa Cruz just to glimpse the ocean, only a half-hour away, but somehow elusive. Our lives and various events upend the most fervent hopes to get near the roaring and overwhelming phenomenon of nature that is the Pacific. Whenever I go there I look across the horizon and imagine that I can espy the shoreline of China or Japan. The Pacific links us rather than separates us. It makes the world seem smaller, more intimate, but also, given its sheer force and lurking threats, the ocean is a dangerous place. Especially for those who dare to swim in its waters. Or those, like the refugees of Lampedusa, who have been forced to swim, and some, to drown.
When I was a youthful 24, long before I became a Jesuit, I received a call from Catholic Social Services in Sacramento. It was an interlude year; I’d just received my master’s degree in religion from a university back East, and had returned to California, not knowing what might lie ahead in life. At the last minute I’d taken a teaching job at a local Catholic high school at a salary of $5,600—in those days, enough to rent a flat downtown and to buy an old VW jalopy. Social Services asked whether I was able to take in a young Vietnamese refugee who had been airlifted from Vietnam in the chaos following the defeat of the US in 1975.
Ho arrived with a bundle of clothes and a rice cooker. He could speak virtually no English, and so we communicated in an English-French patois of our own making. It was not easy. He was going through a massive life transition that was unimaginable to me—I, who had spent the previous six years in the protected enclaves of high-end universities. Suddenly, my small and relatively ordered world was invaded by the chaos of a refugee, down to the unfamiliar odor of the seaweed he would steam in his rice cooker. Ho, who came from a professional background back in Vietnam and who was highly educated, would board a bus each morning to the nearby town of Woodland where he worked in a packing plant (I think it was), working on a widget-like production line that required a mechanical movement of his right arm, back and forth, all day, five days a week. He would return to the flat exasperated, frustrated, and nearly in tears. I felt helpless to do anything to change his plight. I was frustrated, too, indeed overwhelmed by the reality of his suffering.
Ho introduced me to Buddhism. His father had died back in Vietnam and, with local help, he arranged for a Buddhist memorial service at temple in Sacramento. I shall never forget the beauty and reverence of the occasion, or how it opened my eyes to a horizon of piety that was new to me, although, as a Catholic, it was also somewhat familiar in its ritualistic depth. For the first time, I saw Ho in a state of peace.
One day a Vietnamese family arrived at the door. They had arranged with Catholic Social Services to give Ho a home to help him get restarted. And so began the second leg of his journey here in the US. I never saw him again, but can only hope that he finally adjusted to his new world. I will never know. But Ho was among the first to open my eyes to the fact that the earth is teeming with displaced people—far more now than in 1975. He also brought the realities of Vietnam home to me—quite literally. Later I was to learn much more about the plight of refugees as my life again accidentally intersected with that of a Salvadoran man, José, who was forced to flee for his life from that country in 1988. I met him through the Jesuit Refugee Service when I visited El Salvador as a Jesuit novice. (That is another story about which I have written elsewhere [The Sanctuary Experience: Voices of the Community, 2004]).
Today is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. CNN estimates that some 71 million people today have been forced from their homes and that 25 million are refugees, with plights even more dire than that of Ho or José, if that is possible. And I would add to this teeming mass of humanity the millions of unsheltered people across the planet, not least in our own country. The harsh realities of their lives are affecting all of us, and our politics, in ways that could not have been anticipated back in 1975 or even 1988. Fear of what is happening across the globe has generated populist, nationalist, and openly xenophobic political movements and new forms of hatred and violence. Trump, Brexit, the Northern League, the Alternative for Germany, and other parties and movements are but the most obvious manifestations of this refusal to accept that the planet is undergoing massive change, that peoples are being uprooted by social, economic, political, military, and climatic shifts, and that we need to find ways of addressing all this in a realistic spirit. But something in the human psyche—call it the original sin of our selfishness writ large—presents an obstacle to embracing the migrant or the refugee as our sister, our brother, or allowing ourselves to be changed by them. We prefer to live as if these human beings did not exist. Or worse, to round them up, cage their children, separate families, and deport them.
Yesterday’s visit to the ocean took place during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration. On the beach was a Jewish family, gathered in a circle of prayer. At one point they moved toward the water, each carrying a stone. And, standing there in silence, each tossed their stone into the churning foam. I was witnessing the ritual of Taslich, in which the devout toss a stone representing their sins into the water, where they are submerged and drowned by the force of the sea. On that same beach we met an Indian family scouting out a picnic area for a large family gathering. And, strolling along the strand near the beach were Russian Orthodox clergy in their long black robes—incongruous, but there they were. Yes, the ocean does remind us, quite literally, that the world is a small place, that we are one in our humanity. This is a good day to reflect on that reality.