Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Wandering "Okies" today

I recently finished The Grapes of Wrath, one of the most difficult-to-read novels I've picked up in a long time. For me, it was a difficult book, not due to the grammar, although the way Steinbeck quotes the "English" spoken in that time is very hard to comprehend, but because I had a very personal connection with the story. In many ways the difficult journey of the Joads' was also my grandparent’s story.

With fear that my High School English teacher will see this, I admit that this was the first time I had read this classic novel. And as I read about the Dust Bowl from Steinbeck's perspective I was shocked by the amount of total devastation in that region; as well as the ways the sharecropping farmers were kicked off their land to make way for "progress." The description of the automobile drive west and the family’s hopes of a new and blessed life in California was painful to read. The terrible treatment of the "Okies" by the Californians was also appalling.

But why was it painful for me? I've read hard luck stories before; this time it was different. This time this was ‘my’ story. My mother’s family moved out from Oklahoma in the '30's, not due to the Dust Bowl but due to my grandpa's ill health. He had tuberculosis and needed to move to a drier climate. Unfortunately they picked a terrible time to move, when the ‘Joads’ and others were also on the road and seeking work in California.

As a result of reading this novel, I now have an image of my sweet, tiny grandma picking fruit, cotton, and working long hours in a cannery or the walnut house. I discovered my grandparents lived with their seven children in a two-room "house," which was actually a converted chicken coop, for nine years! My mom was the only one of the kids born in California.

Their dreams in migrating were for a better life. As I think about my family, for many of us the dream has come true. All of us are better off than my grandparents.

The dream was fulfilled, just not for the first generation.

Stories of refugees are common in our world today. Numerous people are moving from their homes to try and find a better life someplace else. Like the Joads, though, people don’t just move unless they are forced to by dire circumstances. Last June I was in Turkey about 20 miles from Aleppo, a city on the front pages of the news at the moment. While there, the group of students I was leading was able to meet with a number of Syrian refugees living in that region. We were treated to immense hospitality by these people who had fled their homes due to fighting; none of them wanted to leave, but were forced to due to outside circumstances. As I read how the Joads' maintained their humanity, even in the face of extreme dehumanization from the Californians, I was reminded of the beautiful Syrians we met in June.

As I write this, the city of Aleppo has been retaken by government forces. At the same time, a 7 year old girl in Aleppo has been tweeting her story- Bana Alabed escapes East Aleppo

Although not connected with the rebels, her home has been destroyed by government forces. Like the Joads', will her family make the move to a neighboring country to find a better life? (The link above shares how this family has been relocated to Turkey)

We’re currently in the season of Christmas, a time when Christians reflect on the birth narrative of Jesus. One of the interesting parts of Jesus story is the flight to Egypt shortly after the Magi leave. Jesus was a refugee. What if Egypt had closed their borders to immigrants and migrants? If Mary and Joseph had returned, would Jesus have been killed?

13 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, 15 and they stayed there until Herod’s death.

Knowing my families story makes me much more sympathetic to the plight of those who experience loss and hardship right now. Knowing Syrian people who have fled, hearing their stories and their desire to return home, and knowing Jesus and his family experienced the same trauma and hardships makes me long for a world where peace is seen. What can I do? How do I keep from becoming one of the oppressors? If we stop to think about it for just a few minutes, the story of migration is the story of almost all Americans. At some point our ancestors were in the same circumstances as the fictitious Joads and the very real Syrians like Bana.

I invite you to join me in one way to respond, by giving to the Mennonite relief agency MCC: https://mcc.org/learn/more/syria-iraq-crisis-response

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