Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Heart of an Alien

This week my Scripture readings have been uncannily mirroring my recurring experiences. Throughout the book of Exodus, God continually reminds the people of Israel to take special care for the aliens among them.

In Exodus 23:9, in fact ,God commands that “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

I think I understand a little what an alien’s heart feels like. After all, I’m a resident alien in Cameroon. And even though I feel comfortable here, this will never be “home” in the same sense that the streets of Dallas will be.

That’s probably why American expats get along so well in foreign countries. When we see each other, a flicker of familiarity flares up. We have an automatic connection, because we share the same homeland.

This doesn’t mean I don’t love Cameroon, because I do. It’s just an honest acknowledgement that Starbucks, The Apprentice, Wal-Marts and Monday Night Football are a part of my heritage, for good or ill.

Lately, however, I have become more and more aware of the refugee problem in Cameroon. They come from Niger, Chad, Liberia, Central Africa Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo. They come to escape famine, poverty, and war.

There’s one corner near the middle of town where a couple of families from Niger beg for money. As soon as the traffic stops, children weave between vehicles, gently knocking their empty bowls against car windows. My driver usually tries to shoo them away, with a gruff wave of the hand.

Every week, I have two or three refugees come through the office, looking for financial assistance. There are also a couple of regulars at John Wesley UMC in Yaounde, which prompted their lay leader to schedule a meeting with me. He wanted to know what the Mission could do about the refugee problem. We hit upon the idea of starting a kind of food and clothing bank, based at the church. I told him that such collection centers were common in the States, and that I might even get some churches back home to send some donations to assist in the matter. He was pleased, because I sensed that he was moved by the plight of the refugee in his midst.

I sense that, after the tragedies of the hurricanes in the US, we’ve all become more sensitized to the “heart of the alien.” Because we are all vulnerable to the uncontrollable forces of nature, or of human evil. Each one of us is a potential refugee.

And in one sense, we are all aliens in this world anyway. We’re just “passing through”; “for here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

This isn’t a pious dream, an escape from reality, but a reality-check. It is an acknowledgement that the way things are right now, are not completely as God wants them to be. His kingdom is still coming; it hasn’t arrived yet.

We work toward an earth that is filled with God’s peace and justice. But until then, we are just a little bit out-of-place and ill-at-ease with the world.