And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night and departed into Egypt. Matthew 2:13-14
That Jesus spent a good part of his childhood as a refugee wrenches my heart. I remember taking a train from Georgia to Los Angeles with my four girls as we fled my ex-husband. My youngest wasn’t yet six months. I tried to disguise the flight as an adventure but it was more dreary than anything else. Fear held me by the wrist back in those days and I know each of my daughters felt it gripping them as well.
Even still, we were not quite refugees though we were on the run from intimate terrorism. We had a destination and my parents awaited us. But I remember feeling lost as the wintry landscape, bleak and brown passed us by. My youngest slept fitfully and I did not sleep at all except one night in a hotel. I kept watch over my four helpless charges. I trusted no one.
I suppose what I find astonishing is that Jesus is repeatedly put in the position of the weakest, least powerful person on earth. Conceived to an unwed mother, born in a stable, and then immediately on the run, Jesus apparently did not have stability until later. I can imagine few people on this earth with less agency than a child refugee.
I am not making a political statement here, beyond that of a human sadly observing the realities of a fallen world. Sometimes life leaves one with decisions that involve trying to determine which one will be slightly less ruinous. The problem with being a refugee is that you belong nowhere. As I pass by the homes with condemned signs on them from the Anchorage earthquake, I imagine some of my neighbors feel this way. This town now has quite a few refugees from natural disaster.
They aren’t the only refugees in town. Like anywhere, we have our contingent of homeless, now swelled by the 7.0 catastrophe. My landlord told me that the homeless in Alaska are a bit different. Many have been kicked out of their tribes for substance abuse or behavioral issues. Once shunned, he told me, permanently shunned. Each a refugee not only from their homes but from themselves…
My concern for each child refugee is that we learn what feels safe from conception on. If every emotion is a chemical reaction pouring over the heart and soul of a baby, then a mother is frightened for two. Psychological well-being is nurtured over time by parents who have their own sense of well-being. Once homelessness takes root in the heart of a child, they will have to fight hard to feel at home. You can’t know what you don’t know.
For many a refugee, depression settles over every aspect of their life. A restlessness enters into their bones. Trauma exhausts a person while stealing the ability to rest. It took me years to feel at home again after years of running from myself and my abusive marriage. I still struggle with true rest. I don’t labor to enter into the rest. I wrestle it to the ground and hold it by the throat while it often still slips just out of my grasp.
Jesus as a refugee moves me. None of the other deities of the day suffered these indignities. And just as birth in a stable is dirty and unsafe, so are refugee camps. Food and water are scarce. No clean clothes or bedding. No easy way to heat your food or keep it from spoiling. Shelter is a thin tent if you are lucky. And nowhere are you welcome.
Foreign countries find refugees a burden because they are. Not enough infrastructure, endless expenses, and a fear of unfamiliar cultures make a sudden influx somewhat disastrous for the native populations. One of my worst fears as a single mother was being a burden on others. I worked hard to keep myself and my four girls clothed and fed. My parents helped to supplement here and there. I never received more than $341 a month in child support, but I sure relied on it as well. But when I had to ask for help, it felt humiliating and shameful. That is how it feels to be a refugee, I imagine, utterly dependent on strangers.
The isolation, too, deprives the refugee of safety. The language barriers and cultural expressions that offend keep us from seeing the humanity of the refugee. We dislike their religion or disagree with their culture. Jesus and his parents were Jews in Egypt. I imagine they searched until they found the little Jewish section of town, aware of the suspicious glances and derisive tones around them until they found somebody, anybody who spoke their language or understood their ways.
Americans romanticize Ellis Island. We think that the refugees who passed through there were welcomed, one and all. But the sick, the starving, the criminals, and those who had no family were turned away. Their survival rate was low. During WW2, we turned back a ship of Jewish refugees, all of whom died in concentration camps. I am not trying to send out guilty messages. For every one we turned back, we accepted many more.
But Jesus is still the lover of the refugee. I imagine Him on the cross, bearing in His body the pain of the refugee, whether from war, famine, or mental illness like the native Alaskans that trudge up and down the city center. For those isolated from their families or those imprisoned for their convictions, Jesus can meet them where they are. He has run for His life, lived from couch to couch, and seen ridicule the likes of which few see. That God would be so moved by our human horrors that He Himself would partake of them is more love and empathy than I can comprehend.