Phil Gulley: Our Flagging Ideals

On July 4, we should remember the welcoming spirit that once made us great.
My family and I have spent the last few Independence Days at our farmhouse in order to avoid the riot of explosions that have plagued Danville since a fireworks store set up shop in the building where Mo Howard used to cut hair. When I drove past and saw a man hanging a sign announcing the sale of firecrackers and Roman candles, I knew nothing good would come of it. I felt certain that before the week was out, there would be fingerless teens, burnt hayfields, and sleepless townspeople, which is precisely what happened. I have never liked doomsayers, but the conclusions were so obvious, I could not help but draw them.

In the midst of the current Syrian civil war, the Quaker meeting I pastor decided that instead of making a racket to celebrate our freedoms, we would extend those same freedoms to a family sorely in need of them. So we sponsored the relocation of a Syrian couple and their three daughters to Indiana, just before then-Governor Mike Pence slammed shut the door. They slipped in under the wire—five war-weary Syrians, determined like millions before them to make a fresh start in America.

We met them at the Indianapolis airport, 20 Quakers holding a sign we hoped would welcome them to their new home. For all we knew of the Arabic language, our sign might well have been announcing a sale on underwear. But when our Syrians (by that time, we were speaking of them as “our” Syrians) rounded the corner and saw the banner, we judged we had not only gotten the words of welcome right, but also the spirit of welcome, for they hurried forward and shook our hands. Since they didn’t know our language and we didn’t know theirs, we all spoke loudly, in the custom of those who believe volume is directly related to comprehension.

I admit I was suspicious at first, and studied the children carefully—three little girls clinging to their parents, smiling at us from behind their legs. But I knew terrorists could be sneaky, and that it would be just like them to infiltrate our ranks in the guise of toddlers. Eventually, when the youngest one hugged me, I discreetly patted her down, checking for weapons, but found nothing except a doll, which she had brought from her homeland.

An apartment had been rented for them, and though several people in our meeting had spent the day before cleaning it, it was still a sad and dismal place, less a home and more a way station on the path to something better. But the Syrians seemed delighted by it, and within a few days had filled it with light and order and the fragrant aromas of their country.

Then the paperwork began, visiting one government office after another for various permits and permissions, before moving on to the doctors and dentists. After cavities were found and filled, the father landed a job in a Plainfield warehouse, a place I had driven past a thousand times wondering who worked there. Now I know: people who will do the work we longtimers consider beneath us. First a pay raise, then a promotion, and the father soon made himself indispensable. His boss wanted 50 more like him.

The two oldest daughters had their own jobs—caring for the youngest, helping around the home, attending school, teaching their parents English each night after the supper dishes were washed and put away. The mother cooked and sewed for those needing such things done, winning over her neighbors with Arab hospitality and cuisine. They in turn taught her the thousand little things one must know to live in America. Those same neighbors, some of whom had cheered when fearful men closed the Hoosier door to Syrians, now wondered what all the fuss was about, and wanted 50 more neighbors like them. Are you noticing a pattern?

To be honest, I’m playing fast and loose with the word “we” when I describe what our congregation did. After greeting our Syrians at the airport, I left their care to others, following my custom of inspiring others to do the work so I don’t have to. Someday, a giant corporation will recognize my gifts for delegation and pay me millions to do the same for them. But those who did the work reported the Syrians’ progress every now and then at our meeting for worship. Occasionally, a birthday party would be held, which I would attend, as much for the cake and ice cream as anything. (I would have daily colonoscopies if they were followed by cake and ice cream.)

Though I don’t see our Syrian family often, I’m kept apprised of their advances and am confident our nation came out ahead in the exchange. The daughters, having learned the patterns of work and responsibility early on, will surely grow up and pursue useful vocations. I suspect the mother might open a restaurant and the father will rise through the ranks of the company that first employed him. We’ll gain back a thousandfold the relatively few dollars of assistance our nation provided them, all of which makes me wonder what it was about them we feared. Was it the color of their skin? Their worldview, which seems very similar to my own? One can hardly call them fanatical. Wary of organized religion, they’ve shown no interest in it since their arrival. They appear to want the same things we all do—gainful employment, suitable housing, good schools, and a future for their kids.

Now here is the thing: Our Quaker meeting has provided similar support to native-born persons, very few of whom used the opportunity to better themselves. As assistance was gradually withdrawn, they floundered and demanded more. But every refugee we’ve assisted seemed tempered by an invisible fire, determined to forge a better life. It occurs to me that nations are a lot like families: Without fresh and diverse infusions of genes, the strain weakens. I can think of no better way to revitalize a country than to welcome the people less prudent nations have scorned. Instead, we build walls and pass laws to keep them out, robbing ourselves of the innovation and energy they would bring. We do this in the name of safety and prosperity, but achieve neither, for there is no better way to be safe and prosperous than to invite as many others as we can to share in that.

I am weary of boisterous displays of national pride on July 4, tired of honoring an America that now disdains the spirit that made it great. Once we believed in doors, not walls. Perhaps we should hold off on the fireworks until we remember our way.