Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
September 19, 2021
The girl is dressed simply, in a pink and white flounced skirt. Her shirt is checkered, dirty. Her long, dark hair is tied back with a single red ribbon. Her face is stoic, blank, her eyes wide. Her name is Amal, and she is nine years old, a Syrian refugee who lost both her parents and is making her way from the Turkish-Syrian border to find family in the UK. Oh, and one more detail: Amal is also over 10 feet tall.
See, Amal is a puppet. Right now, with the help of four puppeteers and their support team, she is on The Walk: walking across Europe to raise awareness about children who are refugees. Her name, Amal, means Hope in Arabic. According to her creators, the Walk is part performance piece, part endurance event, as so called little Amal will walk almost 5000 miles to reach her destination in Manchester. According to the project’s producer, her message is simple: Don’t forget us. Remember the millions of children who have been displaced by war and violence, forced to undertake difficult and life-threatening journeys in search of safety. Along the way, as Amal travels through 8 countries, and countless cities, towns, and villages, people are being asked: how will you welcome her? With the help of local partners: artists, performers, dancers and musicians, and ordinary folks like you and me – Amal is being welcomed along the way – raising awareness and raising money to support people seeking refuge in Europe and beyond.
What does welcome look like? What does it smell like, feel like? Who was the last person you truly welcomed? Who has welcomed you?
Dary, my husband, manages the chocolate products for Equal Exchange, a fair-trade coffee tea and chocolate company. He once visited a cocoa co-op in a rural village in the Peruvian jungle. He had to take a plane within the country, then a boat down a river. When he and his colleagues disembarked, they hopped into little motorbike taxis called tuktuks, and were zipped down a bumpy dirt road to the regional coop headquarters. Farmers and their families lined the road, and they were accompanied by a marching band. When they got to the headquarters, they were welcomed with a program put on by the co-op, with kids doing a choreographed dance to the classic reggaeton hit, Gasolina.
I don’t think I’ve ever received a welcome like that.
In a church in New Haven, Connecticut, a family slept in a library last night. Their small beds were snug up against the shelves of books, lamps brought in to make it feel homey. This morning, they got cleaned up with a newly installed shower, the bathroom renovated to accommodate them. They are just a few of the tens of thousands of Afghan allies who will be making a new home here in the states in the weeks and months ahead. In hotels around DC. In Air B&B’s across the country. Men and women who have in many cases left family members and friends behind, in danger, to make a new way here – some, with only the clothes on their backs.
I can’t imagine it. But thank God, the outpouring of support has been incredible, and crosses the political spectrum. Local Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services here in Baltimore has received more donations than they have room for. And that’s a good thing, because as a country, the withdrawal from Afghanistan poses the largest refugee crisis since the Vietnam War. The last administration worked hard to defund and dismantle our country’s robust refugee resettlement programs, and so to rise to the challenge of the present moment, agencies will be forced to rely more than ever before on nonprofit and volunteer support networks. Families and communities are opening their homes. Volunteers are setting up apartments and raising money and donating diapers and clothing and canned goods. And faith communities are opening their doors… living out God’s welcome for us by opening our arms to welcome others.
Our children started a new curriculum for Christian formation this morning, a series that looks at essential practices of our faith. The first four weeks, they are learning about Welcome – the Christian practice of hospitality; Welcoming one another and particularly welcoming those who are other is fundamental to who we are as disciples of Christ. Throughout scripture, we hear a resounding call to welcome one another. In Exodus, we read, “remember that you were once strangers in the land of Egypt, so you are not to oppress those who are strangers among you.” In the letter to the Hebrews, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares.” And here, in the gospel of Mark, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
Welcome a child, and you’re welcoming GOD HERSELF! Now I feel I should remind you that in the ancient world, children did not hold a central place in the household like they do in many families today. In Biblical times, children were an afterthought, the bottom of the totem pole. They were to work, to help in the household, and they had no rights, they were subject to the whims and commands of the patriarch – especially girls.
Now picture Jesus, crowded into a house or a family compound with his disciples and other followers, the members of that household, and kids running around with the goats and chickens and whatever else – picture him taking a child, as he is teaching, with tenderness and care, and focusing his attention on the child – saying, welcome this child, the last and the least of the household, and you welcome me, you welcome God.
There have been a few viral stories over the past couple of years about college and graduate students who, in a moment of crisis, find themselves without childcare and have to bring their babies to class. Instead of barring the babies from their lecture, the professors helped by holding the babies while they taught. Making room for kids in their classrooms. Making it okay for students to be human. Offering what support they can for their learning.
Jesus’ disciples have been quarrelling, trying to best each other arguing about who is the greatest. But over and over Jesus has taught them, and will show them, that the last will be first in the kingdom of God. Under God’s reign, the path to greatness lies not with wealth and power but through humility, service, and love. It is not an easy path. He is seeking to overturn and flatten the hierarchy that rules the ancient world, to bring outsiders into the fold, to share power, and to find everyone a seat at God’s table. It is the path that for him leads first to conflict with the priests and scribes, confrontation with the power of Rome, and then to his humiliation, crucifixion, and death. But still, even in the stunning silence of holy Saturday, even from the darkness of the tomb, God is present, in and through the power of the resurrection, planting hope in our hearts that there is another way. A way of love. A way of peace. A way of Welcome.
We begin each service of worship here at Faith with some pretty specific words of welcome. I believe it’s important to be clear in our welcome because the church universal’s track record of hospitality is not great. Too often churches have defined themselves by what they are not, by exclusion, instead of affirming the truth that we are all reflections of God’s image, each person worthy of belonging in God’s house. How do we make our welcome known? By knowing each other and greeting each other by name. By making space for newcomers, inviting all into leadership and having a session, committees, and deacons who reflect the beautiful diversity of the congregation. By sharing one another’s burdens, and by sharing food and drink together.
Little Amal set off from Gazientep, Turkey in July, with a parade of handmade lanterns lighting her way through the dark city. She has been welcomed by children waving giant flowers, by choirs and marching bands. In Chios, Greece, an orchestra played as she made her way off the boat, a drum line danced her through the city, and she was given gifts in the town center.
In the aftermath of civil war in Syria, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and violence in Central America, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, there are more displaced people in the world than ever before in human history. Over half of refugees are children, and over half of child refugees do not have access to any kind of formal lessons or schooling. This is the tragedy on which Little Amal is seeking to shine a spotlight. Her journey has not been without controversy – in Greece, there were protests. A town council voted to bar her from passing through, out of fear that the performance would draw even more refugees to their overburdened community. But for the most part, people have delighted in welcoming her. In Italy, marimbas played and young people danced in the street, there was a huge parade through Vatican City. The Cardinal in charge of the Catholic church’s office of migrants and refugees came out for the festivities, saying, “we have to meet each other.” It is part of our faith, part of being human: To welcome one another as we have been welcomed.
Our patterns of hospitality have been upended by the pandemic – we may never shake hands freely again. Sharing food and drink has become something we do cautiously, carefully. Forget hugging and kissing cheeks! But the global health crisis makes the calling to welcome others, the work of hospitality more important than ever. As we leave this place, I wonder – where and in whom will we encounter God in the days ahead? I pray that we when we do, we will make them welcome.
 Kitsantonis, Nikki, and Alex Marshall, “Giant Puppet Ruffles Some Feathers on Long Walk Through Greece,” The New York Times, 8/27/21, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/27/world/europe/greece-syria-refugees-puppet.html
 Bloomberg Quicktake: Now on YouTube, “Giant Refugee Puppet ‘Little Amal’ Visits Vatican on Journey to U.K.” 9/10/21, https://youtu.be/UQAbwxR958Y