Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Other Side of the Fence

I shoved my passport through the chain link fence and shouted “permesso di soggiorno permesso di

My two sons and I had arrived in Italy on the previous Friday morning to begin our sojourn as missionaries; Debbie, my wife, would arrive in a few weeks.  After leaving my two boys at the hotel, Carmine, our Italian Baptist colleague, and I went to the local police station (Questura) in Padua; the instructions that came with my visa said to go there to get the forms to apply for a permesso di sogiorno, a card that would permit us to become long-term residents in Italy.

The people at the Questura sent us to another government office.  The people at the second office sent us to yet a third office.  The third office sent us back to the Questura.  It was now 4:00 in the afternoon, and Carmine said we should quit for the day.  I was to return on my own to the Questura on Monday morning and go down the side street to the gate in the fence behind the building; they opened at 8:30 am.

On Monday morning I got my sons breakfast and left them in the room.  I took 3 buses to get to the Questura.  I arrived at 7:45 and found several hundred people milling about in the narrow street in the already rising heat.

At 9:30 a police officer came out of the building and walked toward the gate.  The crowd started shouting and waving official looking letters.  I had no such letter.  I asked the man next to me what the letters were.  He replied “French...No else.”  I pushed my way to the gate and shoved my passport through it showing my visa, all the time shouting “permesso di soggiorno”  Finally the officer looked at it and replied ”uffcio postale…la stazione”—the post office near the train station.

I made my way there and got the forms.  I thought I was on my way.  It would be, however, six months and multiple visits back to the Questura before we got any documents.

Most Americans pay an agent to get documents for them; it fast and easy but a bit costly.  We did not have the money for that.  We were, however, better off that most of the people in the street that morning.  We came from a country where we could get the documents we needed—birth certificates, passports, marriage license, etc.—without paying large amounts of money.

That morning, for me, was a taste of what it is like to be on the other side of the fence without any privilege.  I was just one of hundreds of people that day who needed some consideration.  I was one of hundreds of people that day who were not entirely welcomed in the city and were seen as a burden and inconvenience.

Yes, in Italy, an American seeking residence is just another immigrant that in the end may be more trouble than they are worth.  Tourists they want, residents not so much.

I was born a white middle class male to a family who owned their own home in a liberal democracy.  Others were born in America with more privileged than I, but I started out in a pretty good position nonetheless.  I had never been on the other side of the fence.  It was healthy for me to look through a locked gate from the wrong side, without any privilege or claim.  I am a better person for it.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside,
He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)
Jim Kelsey, Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Song I Did Not Know I Knew

I awoke to the sound of singing. 

I was staying in a partially completed building in Rwanda.  The rural day-laborers gathered each morning before they began their work. Forming a circle, they sang.  The sunrise streamed through my open window as the lilt of their voices floated in.
My first thought was what a life God had given me that I would be in this place of enduring beauty and ancient tradition, awakening to this Rwandan song.  I had a sense that I had in some way come home; it all felt a bit familiar. That morning, for the first time, I heard a song I did not know I knew.  It had lain in me undiscovered.
As I later reflected upon that moving moment, I realized, in a way, I had come home.  We all have roots in Africa.  Our ancestors made their way to the Fertile Crescent, where they came upon animals that could be domesticated and crops that could be bent to the ways of settled agriculture.  We then made our way into Europe and around the globe.  Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel:  The Fates of Human Societies chronicles this initial pilgrimage out of Africa.
We are all part of a common family, born of a single act of Divine love.  The shared song of our origin is imprinted in each of us, often undiscovered.  The Apostle Paul wrote:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  (Colossians 1:15-17)
We have so quantified and analyzed and secularized our world that we have lost a sense of the enduring presence of the one who created it all and still holds it together.  In 1917, Max Weber wrote: “The fate of our times is characterized by intellectualization and rationalization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”  The fracturing of God’s creation is not born of a lack of understanding; it is born of an atrophied capacity for wonder.  In this we have lost our sense of the sacredness and organic wholeness of what God has made.
In Africa, close to my origins, I discovered that song common to all of us, regardless of where we have wandered on this earth—a tune written in the human heart through which Christ holds all things together.  Wondered was awakened in me that morning.
In Africa I heard a song I did not know I knew, a song from long ago when our journey was just beginning.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.