Friday, June 27, 2014

Everyone has a story

You might remember I had a conversation with a colleague at work a while ago about our newly-arrived friends at church. Well since then I’ve continued to find myself bound up in the lives and politics of asylum seekers. Last weekend, our family joined in a march for World Refugee Day. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a rally like that. I was kind of amazed to find myself there. My voting history would certainly not give any indication that I had such radical tendencies. But I’ve been rearranged in heart and mind by this issue.

While I was marching along, I kept thinking about one comment my colleague made during our talk. To be honest, it’s the one thing she said that has ricocheted around in my mind ever since.
“Of course you feel that way! They are your friends and everyone has a story.”
What did she mean when she said, “Everyone has a story”? Did she mean that when you know someone personally, you feel sympathy and so you want the rules to be bent for that one person? Or did she mean that when you hear someone’s story, of course you feel sorry for them, but we can’t run the country’s business on that basis? Or did she mean that everyone has a sob story to excuse their bad behaviour? I’m not really sure what she meant except for this: an individual’s story does not count in the grand scheme of things.

But I think it does. I agree with her: everyone does have a story. And I think all those individual stories count. I think treating people justly demands that they not be removed from their stories and simply dealt with as “an issue”. Everyone lives a unique life and if compassion is not responding in sympathy to the plight of another then what on earth is it?

The more I get drawn into this whole mess, the more I see that opinions change when they come up against the personal stories of individuals. The only way we can justify the current detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island is by not letting ourselves hear their individual stories. Because if we did, the weight of it all would mount up and make our position untenable.

Hearing our friends’ story is hard. It is painful for them to re-live it as they tell me. I go away with the weight of it all hanging on my shoulders, knowing I’m for the most part powerless to help change their current circumstances. Some days I am frustrated, I am angry, and I’m full of sorrow. Sometimes, I just want the whole thing to go away because the responsibility of knowing takes me out of my comfort zone and requires I respond in ways that I don’t want to choose. I don’t want to stand up for my friends by having awkward conversations with colleagues or friends who disagree with my position. I don’t want to write letters to important people and march in rallies. But how can I know their story and just not care? And as much as it is heart-wrenching to hear, I also get glimpses of the amazing story that God is writing in their lives. He is the God of the impossible.

I was trying to think of whether I could find a place in the Bible where there was an appeal made on the basis of just one person’s story. I think I’ve found it in Philemon. Onesimus, a slave, ran away. Paul wrote a letter to his owner, Philemon, asking him to receive Onesimus back as a brother, not as a slave, and offering to pay himself whatever Onesimus might owe. Paul says, “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.”

Well, Paul, of course you feel that way! He is your friend and everyone has a story.

Yes, they do. God’s grace works in each one of us as individuals known by name to our heavenly father. Far from being irrelevant, those stories count more than news headlines and political loyalties and maintaining polite conversation. 

Everyone has a story. Do we have the grace to listen?

1 comment:

Joan Milne said...

The problem with the Onesimus/Philemon/Paul story in relation to asylum seekers is the Christian faith of these three men and the need for all of them to behave in Christian ways. Asylum seekers are not necessarily Christians and their story may not be a good or honest one, nor may their intentions towards our country be positive. So while I am utterly in favour of treating asylum seekers with Christian compassion I am also wary of accepting all stories as valid and of good intent.
I find the whole area of asylum seeking fraught with pitfalls and dangers and I do not think our country has yet begun to address them in a meaningful and compassionate way.