Bless Your Hands: After Advocacy, Hospitality for Refugees and Immigrants
By Lisa Hoffman
السلام على يديك
Bless your hands.
Every language has its courtesies, and Arabic is a language full of beautiful sentiments for particular moments. There are words of invitation to call out to a passerby and offer a cup of coffee. There are special phrases of condolence to use when someone has lost a loved one. There is even a complimentary expression to use when someone has gotten a haircut.
My favorite of these common expressions is the blessing given in Palestinian Arabic when someone gives you something they have prepared: "Bless your hands." Sometimes translated as "peace upon your hands" or "may your hands be safe," this thoughtful sentiment acknowledges the work and effort of serving more specifically than the blanket English expression "thank you." The proper response is to return the blessing: "And to your hands."
Sitting on the ground in a tent with white plastic on the roof and corrugated metal on three sides, an old Palestinian man in a refugee camp once mentioned to me offhandedly that he could not remember the last time he tasted meat. He had accepted his living conditions, but he didn't want to see his grandchildren grow up with no chance of a future outside the camp. As we talked, he told stories of past struggles and upheaval. In Arabic culture, guests must always be offered refreshments, and he offered the finest he had. I watched him heat water and some loose tea leaves in a humble metal pot and expertly pour the steaming liquid into a few glasses not much larger than a shot glass. When he handed me the hot glass and I said "bless your hands," I heard the words of that phrase in a new way. In that moment I realized the gravity of wishing safety, health, and peace to the hands of an old man who had lost more than I may ever know.
What comes after the will to welcome, though? Does our commitment to "the foreigner" extend beyond advocacy?
Recently, the question of welcoming refugees has become a more politically divisive issue in the U.S. than ever before. Policy notwithstanding, those who are committed to following the teachings of Jesus already have clear Scriptural mandates about whether we should welcome foreigners and how we are to treat immigrants and international guests. What comes after the will to welcome, though? Does our commitment to "the foreigner" extend beyond advocacy? What are Christian faith communities' obligations and opportunities of hospitality toward internationals who are already here? What does "bless your hands" mean in today's world?
Hospitality at the Ground Level: Making Our Hands a Blessing
Being a face of welcome and providing hands of hospitality can take many forms. If you live in a community with a refugee resettlement agency, ask about how you can help a newly arrived family. (Refugee resettlement in the U.S. is coordinated by the federal government and voluntary agencies who have local affiliates. In Canada, citizens can privately sponsor a refugee family.) Resettlement agencies take care of refugees' immediate needs for 90 days after arrival: This includes housing, food, clothing, medical care, language classes, and employment assistance. During and after that first 90 days, though, volunteers can provide a personal touch of care and welcome to families in transition. Volunteers can help newcomers learn the process of grocery shopping or navigating public transportation, for example. Some resettlement agencies use a co-sponsorship model that allows congregations or community groups to commit to helping a recently arrived family pay their rent over a period of several months, as well as welcome them through inviting them to community and cultural events.
If 90 days is too daunting a commitment, ask a refugee resettlement agency about furnishing an apartment for a family, collecting school supplies for children or for adult English classes, and volunteering as tutors or mentors to children in a new school system.
Of course, refugees are not the only "strangers" among us. Our words of welcome and hands of hospitality should extend to all immigrants and international visitors currently in our communities. One low-commitment entry point to meeting internationals in your community is to seek out an English conversation club at a local church or library. Serving at an English conversation club (or starting one!) is less intimidating to many volunteers than long-term tutoring or mentoring: English speakers and English learners simply meet up and pair off to chat about each other's cultures to practice English.
Casual coffee-and-conversation English open houses at two of my previous churches are still going strong years after I left. Local churches and library branches in my city also offer meet-up activities ranging from chess to guitar to golf as a way to connect with international community members across language and cultural barriers. Across the country, various ministries to international students provide hospitality and personal connection to temporary residents who may only be in the U.S. for only a few years, but who still deal with homesickness and culture shock. These interactions can eventually lead to families and small groups sharing meals and traditions. Simple acts of radical hospitality can break into the pain of isolation and alienation from a seemingly hostile culture. Heartfelt welcome can lead to genuine connection.
Our faith is a faith that takes the risk of crossing the road to help the wounded Samaritan, at the risk of being robbed ourselves.
Is there some inherent danger in welcoming refugees and "others" into your country, your home, your life? Yes, of course—inasmuch as any ministry to another person carries a degree of risk. Yet we know from Scripture that the life of discipleship is a life that includes risk. Our faith is a faith that takes the risk of crossing the road to help the wounded Samaritan, at the risk of being robbed ourselves. It is a journey that may include expense, inconvenience, and the disapproval of others. We wouldn't expect anything else from the pilgrimage of the Prince of Peace.
Returning the Blessing
This past year I had the privilege of sharing a Thanksgiving meal with a family who had come to our community from Syria a few months before. The observance of Thanksgiving—one of the few homegrown U.S. holidays—took on a much more significant meaning when celebrating with a family whose smiles exuded grace and gratitude at just being part of the observance. We didn't have an agenda to follow or a program to complete. Across the barriers of language and culture and life experience, we simply shared a table. We shared smiles and small talk. We experienced the power of welcome.
السلام على يديك "Bless your hands." Perhaps you, too will share a cup of hot mint tea as a simple exchange of refreshment and words between two souls. Perhaps you will share a holiday meal and open your home to another family. Perhaps you will share one evening a week in conversation with a stranger who becomes a friend. In blessing others, "may your hands be safe." In each small act of hospitality, may your hands offer peace.
Lisa Hoffman is a professor of education at Indiana University Southeast. She also serves on the board of Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Louisville, KY. Follow her on Twitter @Hoff_Prof.