A smile is the universal welcome. Max Eastman
When you open your heart to a stranger, you have welcomed another heart into your home. Anthony T. Hinks
I’ve been thinking about the word welcome. Though I say it all the time, sincerely, gladly, as I open the front door of Joy Center and greet the people entering, it was a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered a few weeks ago that coaxed me deeper and more expansively into the word’s meaning. I just happened to turn on my car’s radio as the journalist began speaking about the flow of refugees wanting to enter the United States at the southern border, how they are not all from South and Central America, how many of them are from several countries in Africa, have traveled by plane a great distance across the Atlantic Ocean to South America where a harrowing overland journey awaits them on their way northbound. Like the refugees from South and Central America, these people are fleeing economic hardships and human rights abuses and risking their lives as they make their way through dense jungles and crime-filled areas where robbery is a common occurrence. The journalist focused in on one African family, a mother, a father and three young children, told how it took them many months to travel on foot from South America, through the thick-jungled forests of Central America, how they carried the children on their backs as they crossed wide rivers, how they went five days with no food at all, drinking rain water to give them the energy to continue, how they then waited two months at the Mexican border before they were allowed to enter the United States.
This story was touching my heart, for sure, but it was what the journalist shared next that caused me to gulp back tears then let them flow. When the African family finally was granted entry, they were taken to a nearby shelter, and, within two weeks, were bused twenty-five hundred miles from the border, to New England’s most northern state of Maine, my home state, a state that had been primarily Caucasian until an influx of Africans were made to feel welcome in the 1990’s and is now known for its generous social safety net. The journalist told how the mayor of Portland, Maine’s largest city, was leading the cause in setting up temporary shelter, and figuring out how the city and state would cope with this overflow of people needing housing and employment. In the meantime, local residents were flocking in to help, donating money, bringing food to the people in the shelters. The journalist reported that the mayor was sure they would figure things out, that it would all work out. “Maine has a long history of helping its neighbors” the journalist reported the mayor as saying.
That’s when it became personal for me. That’s when I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I thought of the monthly Church suppers when I was a child, of Miss Thom’s clam casserole, Aunt Mil’s tomato aspic, Aunt Barbie’s green beans and onion rings, my own mother’s wonderful cornbread-topped church supper dish, how we were embraced with the warmth of community at these suppers and food was a main attraction. Mrs. Stadler also flashed into my mind as I listened to the broadcast, how she always in early summer walked from her cottage to ours carrying a rhubarb pie fresh from garden and oven, how welcomed I felt by her smile and her delicious pie, how these neighbors became family to me, how good it felt to be taken into the fold. And I envisioned these Africans new to the United States, new to this northern climate and culture being greeted with flocks of people carrying casseroles and corn bread and fresh-picked lobster in stews and rolls, being greeted with smiles and home-cooked meals and a hearty, sincere “You are welcome”. When the journalist had asked the father in this family what it was like to live in Portland in the make shift-shelter, he replied, “It is paradise.”
I don’t know the answer to an overflow at the United State’s southern border or an overflow of people, for that matter, at some events at our sweet cottage Joy Center sanctuary. And I don’t know how it feels to flee a home country because of fear for your life, or what it feels like to journey through jungle and river and danger to grasp at something that might bring you safety and peace and a new beginning. I do know, however, that I can take a cue from the mayor of Portland that we can figure things out, that it will work out, that I can expand my view of neighbor and neighborhood. And I do know what it feels like to be welcomed when I’m the hungry traveler, when I’m in need of a smile or a meal or simply a listening ear. And I do know what it feels like to be the one, the one who opens her arms wide and smiles a big sincere smile as she stands at the door of her ever-expanding life and says it loudly and clearly and warmly, “Welcome! You are welcome!”
Murals in a Sancutaury at the Aubergue in Guemes, Spain: May 30, 2019