Monday, January 30, 2017

No Matter Where You Are From

I posted on Facebook yesterday that I have started noticing these signs around central Pennsylvania. It started with Hershey but I've since seen them in Lebanon, Harrisburg, Lititz and Lancaster. As it turns out, it all began with Lancaster (which I still pronounce as LAN-caster instead of Len-cas-TER. My cover is blown about 30 seconds after the locals meet me but they keep inviting me to stuff anyway). Lancaster has been dubbed "America's Refugee Capital" for its role in accepting and assisting more refugees per capita than any other city in the US. To date, citizens of Lancaster have welcomed over 1300 refugees into their city and their homes.

In 2012, they created the Lancaster County Refugee Coalition, whose motto is Thriving in Lancaster, Enriching Us All. This association of over 40 community organizations support and optimize refugee resettlement in Lancaster County by "empowering the community to incorporate refugees into social services and community systems." They do this by enlisting the help of organizations like the Lancaster/Lebanon Literacy Council (and their ESL services), Franklin & Marshall College, the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement and Church World Service of Lancaster. In fact, Church World Service and Lutheran Refugee Services are the 2 agencies that resettle refugees in Lancaster County. They have 90 days, per an agreement with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, to get refugees resettled with the basic necessities (i.e. housing) but Lancaster County wanted to do more than simply get a roof over their heads and some food in their mouths. They wanted to make the resettlement process as seamless and painless as possible. During a conference of the coalition, the members realized that communication between the agencies was breaking down and there was no coordinated or streamlined process for resettlement. The coalition received two grants totaling $35,000, which funded a refugee focus group and a coalition coordinator, who works to bring new agencies on board who can contribute to one of the 4 areas of need identified (English as a second language - especially for adults in the workplace, refugee adjustment assistance, refugee youth and the community/cultural center-which is actually a Rotary Club project). The ultimate goal is to help these refugees become productive members of the community, not just dependents on the system. And they have been doing just that. In 2014, Lancaster welcomed 90 Somalis; 67 Burmese; 36 Iraqis; 32 Bhutanese; 31 Cubans; 25 Democratic Republic Congolese; 11 Ethiopians; 8 Sudanese; 2 Nepalis; 2 South Sudanese, and 1 Kenyan. 

But why is any of this surprising? Lancaster became home to the Amish and the Mennonites who were fleeing persecution long before the Iraqis arrived. And unlike many Americans, who often forget their European ancestry, these 2 religious groups remember what it was like to find a land of freedom. So, of course they would welcome them and try to ease their transition. Lancaster County is truly a melting pot of diversity. 

I will admit, when we first moved here, I made some Breaking Amish jokes. I tried to Instagram every horse and buggy we passed. I mocked the Mennonites for flocking to Hobby Lobby (What? Don't you make your own twine from horse hair or something?). But living among them (and joining the Moravian Church, whose motto is "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love"), I began to appreciate their unconditional love for their fellow humans. Not just other Mennonites. Not just other Amish. Not just other Moravians. All humans. Equally. In all things, love. They are doing God's work. They are living like Jesus. Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me

Refugees are, by their very definition, fleeing some unspeakable horror. They never wanted to leave their homeland. They never wanted to uproot their lives and move thousands of miles away, to a country that would tolerate them, at best, or falsely accuse and execute them at worst. I have a friend who lives in Pakistan. One day, on messenger, I asked her why she didn't just leave? Why not move to the U.K., where she had studied? And she simply said, "Because Pakistan is my home. I cannot leave." And, knowing about the political climate of Pakistan, I believe that says a lot. She posts pictures of her friends at the beach on holiday and at family celebrations and you would never know that her country is falling apart. But it is her home and it would take something unspeakable to make her leave. The only thing we should do is welcome them, hug them and help them find a home here, however temporary or permanent it may be.

I have, as I am wont to do, thrown myself into the activities of our new church. I spent last Saturday morning with other Moravians, hand-dipping pretzels that were sold to benefit the church's mission work in Jamaica. And I am on the nature garden committee. And we will be participating in the Little Lambs ministry, a program created to give children an opportunity to serve their community. This month, we will be collecting and delivering donations of breakfast food items to the Water Street Mission, which provides assistance for the homeless, as well as health screens and immunizations to refugees. 

But first...a sign. For our yard. For our neighbors. For anyone who happens to wander by. No matter where you are from, we are glad you're our neighbor. These signs are being sold by, wonder of all wonders, the Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster. But if you would like your own and you live far, the Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia created a PDF that can be sent to your local sign maker (or shirt maker, or billboard maker). You can find that free PDF file here. While the signs springing up in this area are predominantly Arabic/English/Spanish, the link above will also give you language options for French, Somali, Armenian, Hindi, German, Japanese and Chinese. 

In all


  1. Milton ordered signs for us last night at the One Voice Chorus rehersal ... from the local Mennonite Church, which is order a big batch from Harrisonburg. It happens that we have hispanic and Muslim neighbors whom we want to support. It's a great project.

    So glad you are building your new posse, or at least finding projects and people to join. It will be even easier as the weather warms up and people get outside more.

  2. Well said, as always... Education and understanding take effort...


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