Sunday, August 31, 2008

Refugee and Migrant Sunday

This is the first homily I've delivered in church, which happened this morning...

On this Sunday declared by the National Council of Churches in Australia to be Refugee and Migrant Sunday, there seems to be a common thread in the readings about migration, about what moves us to move, and our shared history of co-mingling migrations on this sacred earth.

Moses, whose story today was about him receiving the instruction and authority to migrate his people, an arguably pivotal point in Exodus ; ) married an Ethiopian woman, and had to survive racist jibes from his sister in law (who was then struck with leprosy, seen in this context as God’s vengeance for her racism).
Moses asks God on whose authority he can say the migration is on, like, when the people ask, who says so, who can Moses say says so, and God replies “I AM AS I AM. This is what you will tell the Isaelites. “I AM has sent me to you”

The footnote in the Inclusive Bible says, the phrase translated as “I am as I am,” (in Ancient Hebrew) Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is difficult, and may mean “The One who Brings Things Into Being”, “The One Who Is”, or “I will be however I will be”

The One Who Brings Things Into Being, the will to live, to freedom, perhaps the fire in the belly of those brave enough to leave familiar lands to seek freedom from tyranny, or the will to live that drives people to extraordinary lengths in carrying their families away from destruction such as that wrought by us, Australia, on Iraq, and by various other countries driven by greed, insecurity, or populist agendas?

Of course, I especially like the bit where God asks Moses to take his shoes off, as he is standing on sacred ground. I’m not telling anyone else to take their shoes off, God speaks to each person differently, but to me God says, keep your feet bare to the earth, to the ground that supports you, and to the connection you have with the whole planet that your physical and emotional being is part of.

The land belongs to God, all land belongs to God, as do all humans. Boundaries are a human invention, and if we pay homage to them over our common humanity, we disrespect God’s creation.

In Matthew, Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind “not on the things of God, but of mortals”, and moreover, calls him “you Satan”. God’s will for us is not always congruent with mortal concerns about material comfort, or about borders and security.

I first got involved in refugee and immigration detention issues because I was following my inner camp fire. For over a decade, I had been travelling to the hippy festival Confest every New Year and Easter, but they are a day’s travel away on the Victorian border, and when I saw a poster for the trip to Baxter in 2005 to demonstrate against the detention gulag there, I jumped at the chance to combine social camping and social justice. And rediscovered that social bonus in working with people who do good: They are good people!

I put on a benefit gig for my birthday party that year, fundraising for the Refugee Action Coalition to advertise a rally, and talked the gorgeous Asian Dancing Boys into doing a show with me. Doing good is its own reward, but I do appreciate the side benefits : )

God’s communication has progressed from burning bushes, and my next step was obvious from an email from a refugee detained in Villawood, in response to a letter to the Star Observer about the fundraiser. This refugee asked me to walk my talk and visit him, so I followed the call, and travelled out to the razor wire complex hidden in an industrial zone out in Western Sydney, with dodgy train connections and the rail buses on more often than not, trudging a kilometer in all weather, rain, wind, rain and wind, in winter, or beating summer sun, putting up with the loss of dignity that is part of the processing for visitors, filling in intrusive maybe tricky forms, being searched in case you’re trying to smuggle in such contraband as your housekeys or a cigarette lighter (just hide them under a metal belt buckle is the method ; ) going back to the counter-intuitive electronic lockers because you forgot to leave your purse there, and finally being tagged and stamped before going through three locked gates to the all-weather visitors area, where all weather blows through and rains on, a few sparse pagodas and no walls.

But the people you meet! And the stories they share! What fire must burn for those who have survived heroic and traumatic journeys of escape. How blasphemous then for them to be locked up by our bureaucrats, their stories doubted, their good will questioned, their very humanity ignored for the sake of demonstrating our government’s commitment to border security, as thousands of tonnes of drugs and weapons and other contraband are routinely smuggled across our porous borders, and as we beg hundreds of thousands of foreigners to move here to serve our “skilled migration” needs, while less than one percent of that number are held in soul-crushing limbo for the show of border protection… and xenophobia…

It’s not comfortable visiting Villawood, but its less terminal than crucifixion. I face the evil, that’s what razor wires and caging humans is to me, I face the evil every month, but I get to walk back out again. And I get to work with other social justice activists, and this is most gruntling to me, meaningful connections with people who choose to lead meaningful lives, committed to the well being and honouring of our common humanity, or, if you like, to honouring the sacred dignity of each of God’s creations.

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

This is quoted in a piece from the Uniting Church I found on its website, which goes on to say:

From its beginnings the Hebrew story was the story of a people in exile, of aliens resident in foreign lands suffering oppression and persecution. This history of exile and exodus, particularly the escape from slavery in Egypt, revealed to the Israelites the nature of their God and defined their relationship with God and other people. Throughout the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), God is identified as the God who cares for the exiled and the persecuted refugee. Hospitality to the stranger became one of the strongest moral forces in ancient Israel.

The Christian story continued to uphold God's call to solidarity with the homeless. Mary and Joseph were forced to take Jesus and hide in Egypt as Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus.

Jesus travelled through strange lands, choosing to spend time and share meals with the most marginalised and oppressed people of his society. He called on people to love their enemies, give all they had to the poor, and offer hospitality to strangers. He taught that faithful obedience to God was marked by such deeds. In fact, it would be the way people responded to strangers and to the poor that would identify them as people of faith.

There is no question about the Christian response to asylum seekers and refugees. The Church is called to be a place of welcome. As faithful disciples we are to provide care and comfort to those who come to this land as strangers, seeking safety.

The Uniting Church advocates for a just response to the needs of refugees that recognises Australia's responsibilities as a wealthy global citizen, upholds the human rights and safety of all people, and is based on just and humane treatment, including non-discriminatory practices and accountable transparent processes.
To which I add, No Borders! No Nations! No Deportations!

Monday, August 25, 2008

from my friend Rachel Evans .., a fellow staunch human rigths activist.. Villawood Detention Centre is a privatised concentration camp in Syndey's west. Whatever your views on immigration and caging people, the number of people held by immigration is less than one percent of the number of people encouraged to come here on skilled migration programs. They are but token victims of the need for politicians to be elected by voters fearful of foreigners. This may be human animal behaviour, but it is not civilised behaviour.
Anyway, here's Rach:

A reportback on Sunday's 24th August Villawood visit

Norrie, myself , Kelly, Malula, Adam (Metropolitan Community Church), Laurel (RAC Melb) visited Villawood Detention Centre (VDC) and found many of our contacts gone. Many have been released into the community. Some deported.

One detainee told us 2 months ago there was around 250 people in VDC. Two months ago the government granted many of the 2yearly detainees status. Conversely, many of the 3 year detainees were deported. All Indians were deported, most Africans released into the community & many Chinese were released at the beginning of the Olympics. There are now 150 people in VDC.

One month ago, many more were released into the community - but on Bridging E visas - which have no work, social security, Medicare or study rights. However, said our source, many of those Bridging E Visas are being converted to permanent residency - out of 5 of his friends who have got out - 4 now have permanent residency.

But there has been a HUGE turnover of detainees over the last 1.5 month period with a huge amount of new faces. Our source says 900 people have gone through VDC in the last 2 months. These new people are not, like before, being nabbed from the streets/ workplaces by cops and put in detention but they are being stopped at the airport. Immigration is stopping people from poor countries & checking if they have credit cards. If not, and they cant show wads of cash - Immigration have been throwing them in VDC for a night then deporting them. One case we heard of was of two Korean tourists whose friends bought $20,000 in cash to show to Immigration. They were still deported!?! Looks like real tight border control against the poor is Rudd's new anti-refugee intake policy.

501s - of which there were 10 in Stage 1 - were all released last week. There were rumors about Stage One being closed cos there are only 6 people left there. There is only one woman left in VDC, said another detainee , after- a woman who was in VDC for 6 years ( !?gods!?) got released last Friday. This last woman is in isolated conditions in the women's LIMA block.

Of the detainees still remaining - and there are still detainees - they are being asked for HUGE bonds with their Bridging E Visas - $10,000 or $20,000 surety. Terrible. One of the African Pilgrims has been given status - 2 remain awaiting hearings.

So work still to be done. We are trying to get info on if all the people released have been put on Bridging E Visas. The demand for Work Rights is real vital in this period. We are a way away from closing all the camps....There were 2 deportations that happened last week at VDC - apart from Harinda Kavinder - a Vietnamese man. Xmas Island needs to close. Mandatory detention is still in place. Australia has a paltry human rights intake. More work needs to be done. But there are many people who have been granted status in this last period - a result of lots of hard work from all of us!

In struggle & solidarity,
Rachel Evans