The photo of that woman has not dimmed in my mind since I first saw it a week ago, a few days after another refugee boat capsized north of Christmas Island. The petite woman wore a scarf over her hair, there was a tag hanging from her wrist – probably with processing information for Customs authorities, and her face was furrowed with grief. Because strapped around her torso was a baby carrier that dominated the image due to the absence of its contents.
It was empty.
We were told that a baby boy, not yet one year old, was pulled from the choppy seas that day, drowned, and another eight people were missing. Such a sad day.
That photo said many things to me. It showed a refugee. A person seeking asylum by illegal means. She was one of about 90 passengers from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But strip all complications of her plight and she is simply a woman, a mother, a daughter, a friend. Like me. She’s all that and she’s alone, grieving the death of her son in a strange place.
Let’s never forget the person cloaked in that strange veil, the person represented in the statistics, the person locked away or dead at sea or waiting, waiting.
For some reason we were born here, into our privileged families, in this Western democracy, into the 21st Century. For some reason, we weren’t born into poverty, injustice, war and persecution. And whatever that reason, it leaves us with a tremendous responsibility to uphold the cause of those worse-off.
Jesus was a refugee. Shortly after his birth, Mary and Joseph fled with him to Egypt to escape King Herod’s barbaric decree that all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two be killed. They only returned after Herod’s death (Matthew 2). Later, Jesus tells a parable that lends from his experience as a refugee.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
Jesus’ implication that the “I” of his parable wasn’t Jesus so much as all of humanity, is confirmed a few verses later, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (v.40)
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the humanity concealed behind veils and tags hanging from the wrist. Sometimes we can’t see the person for their description, the noun for the adjective.
Example? Well, there’s a certain wardrobe, neighbourhood and vernacular associated with the word ‘bogan’. Is it fair to write a person off for the adjectives they attract? Labels are necessary – they help us to break down knowledge into cohesive tablets of information. But it shouldn’t be the only value weight applied to a person.
As long as the person across from you is living and breathing, you have something in common and a reason to extend love and care.
“Whatever you do for the least of these…”
As printed in The Examiner newspaper for Keeping the Faith column on Monday July 22, 2013.