Friday, February 3, 2017

"Welcoming the Stranger" - Message at a Las Cruces Interfaith Prayer Service - February 3, 2017

      This week, a reporter was interviewing people in lower Manhattan who were about to board a boat to visit the Statue of Liberty. 
      She asked the passengers on the boat, "Who was Emma Lazarus?"  
        Some had heard her name, some hadn't. 
       When the reporter said, "Give me your tired, your poor," she added, "Emma Lazarus wrote that."  
     Then they realized that they knew at least one thing about this woman who wrote a timeless poem. 
      Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 and grew up near New York City's Union Square in downtown Manhattan.   She was from a Sephardic Jewish family.  Her ancestors originally came from the area of Spain and Portugal. They had lived in America for some time. 
     While her family sought to become part of the mainstream of society, people often called her "Jewess," reminding her that she was different and in the minority. 
     Still, Emma Lazarus made a name for herself. She was an accomplished poet from her teenaged years.   
Her writing often focused on the plight of her people around the world and in the United States. 
     She was horrified when Joseph Seligman, a prominent member of the New York Jewish community who had emigrated from Germany, was refused entry to the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, NY in 1877.   
    The owner of the hotel explained that Jews of Sephardic origin, like Emma, were welcome, but not those "German Jews."  
     Emma Lazarus knew that, at that time, there were many Jews coming from Russia and Eastern Europe, both to escape anti-Semitic attacks to which they were subjected and to find a better life here. 
    She became a passionate advocate of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe.   And she could see people from many backgrounds seeking a place of safety and opportunity in the United States, and she thought it was important to welcome them, too.  
     So she wrote her poem THE NEW COLOSSUS for a fundraiser for Lady Liberty in 1883.   Emma Lazarus died in 1887.  It wasn't until her poem was rediscovered in 1901 by a friend that her poignant words were thought of again.  Her poem was inscribed onto a plaque and placed on the premises of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.  
    Here we are, 114 years later, still looking to the words of Emma Lazarus for inspiration and guidance.  
     To Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Buddhists, Sikhs, and people of other faiths and beliefs, our country has offered a welcome - and a process by which immigrants could ultimately become citizens.     
     We need a system that works, a path that recognizes our role in helping refugees find a new place to live, using the same system of extensive vetting that has already been employed in recent years. 
    We need to open our minds and hearts to the stories of everyone around us, from Native Americans who have a long heritage on this land, to those who journeyed to America from other countries.  
    We are mindful that people all over this nation - in the heartland as well as on the coasts, have immigration stories that they could share, tales that could instantly create common ground.
     And we need to listen to the stories of those who want to stay here but who have no opportunity due to legislative inaction. 
    I hope and pray that the words of Emma Lazarus can direct us to maintaining  policies that demonstrate wisdom and compassion.  
    It was that type of welcome to immigrants that allowed my grandparents, Wolf and Pearl Glazer, and Mendel and Anna Karol, to come to this country from Eastern Europe, making it possible for me to stand here today.  
    It is that approach that can generate good will to people who would face danger if they went home.  
    It is that perspective through which our country can affirm the great strength that so many people from so many places have provided to our nation.  
    May we look into each other's eyes and see a vision of goodness and Oneness, realizing that an Eternal Presence will preserve our fellowship and faith if we continue to stand together.  

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