SC Federation First Professed
Last Fourth of July was remarkable. Since the Shariff family’s arrival in April, we’d been bonding with them over delicious Somali food and tea. Now, we invited them for a cookout to celebrate their first “Independence Day” as Americans.
The Shariffs spent ten years in refugee camps in Ethiopia before gaining passage to the United States. Their youngest son was born in a camp and knew nothing else throughout his earliest years. In fact, it was his innocent, impassioned begging that convinced the UNHCR representatives to approve the Shariffs for resettlement. The two parents and nine of their eleven children flew to Cincinnati to begin their new lives in the spring of 2017. They carried painful memories and trauma, very little money, and worry about what the future would hold. But they also carried their strong Muslim faith, the hope and resilience that had gotten them so far already, and their unbreakable family bond.
Thanks be to God, the Shariffs came into my life on their second day in the United States. Catholic Charities initially struggled to find housing for eleven people, so the Sisters of Charity offered them a home until they could get on their feet. From the first encounter with them as they climbed out of the white van, their belongings in grocery bags, I sensed that they were something special.
In the coming weeks, the Sisters and the Shariffs became family. Our admiration and affection grew as we heard their stories and felt the warmth of their love and hospitality. We delighted in watching them courageously dive into their new lives. They wasted no time researching schools, jobs, drivers’ licenses, and more, their faces often brilliant with joy and determination even after all they’d been through. When they found a house to rent, we kept in touch and visited.
Then, on the Fourth of July, we drove three cars over to bring them back to our place. They smiled brightly at our welcome sign written in Somali. They tried our grilled halal chicken and veggies, potato salad, corn on the cob, and fresh watermelon. We played games, and the girls gave us exquisite henna tattoos. We finished the day with Annie’s lovely American flag cake and ice cream – a Shariff favorite.
It was the most meaningful Fourth of July of my life. Celebrating our beloved new Americans was the perfect alternative to the militant false patriotism that tends to characterize this ambiguous holiday. Our friendship with the Shariffs shows me the best of who we can be as a country and as a human family.
This year, the Fourth of July promises to be similarly profound but tinged in sadness. Lazaro, a well-known and much-loved Holy Family parishioner, moves back to Guatemala on July fifth after eight years in Cincinnati, working sixteen-hour days at two cleaning jobs and leading the parish charismatic group. The money he earned has supported his wife and five youngest children in his humble, hill-country town of San Miguel, and now, he says, it is time to return home to them. He leaves his three oldest children here, and they’ve invited me to a farewell cookout on the Fourth.
Amalia, Lazaro’s oldest daughter, clutched my hand after Mass on Sunday. We had blessed Lazaro at the close of the liturgy and now were gathered at a pizza party in his honor. Her forlorn eyes misted as she whispered, “I don’t know when I will ever see him again.”
Amalia hasn’t seen her mother or five younger siblings since she migrated to the U.S. as a teenager, and this week, she effectively loses her father, too. Our current immigration policy allows no path to citizenship for people like Lazaro or Amalia, and their undocumented status prevents them from visiting.
And so, instead of cheering our country on “Independence Day,” I will mourn its injustice. I will sit in lawn chairs with Amalia and her two other siblings, sharing a meal of carne asada as they soak up their last afternoon with their Dad. Then, at 4:30am on Thursday, I’ll pick them up and take them to the airport for Lazaro’s 7:00am flight.
Our laws have caused Lazaro and his family suffering. As long as we put off comprehensive immigration reform, they will be divided. But that seems to be of little concern to our nation who is now actively dividing parents from children at our borders. All of this shows me the worst of who we can be as a country and a human family.
When Pope Francis addresses Congress in 2015, he said, “Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7:12). This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us."
The Pope's challenge could inspire us to a different kind of Fourth of July. Rather than a day to reinforce a propaganda-laden image of the United States as the “greatest country in the world,” this could be a moment to pause and decide who we really want to be. Rather than immaturely crying, “America first!” we could act for the common good. Rather than independence, we could work toward interdependence. Rather than simply admiring fireworks in the sky, we could ask God to enkindle a fire in our hearts to work toward the Kingdom. Rather than letting history unfold as it will, we could choose to celebrate what is good in our country and adamantly resist what is evil and unjust.
This is the question on my heart this Fourth of July: What kind of a country do you want to live in? And what are you doing to make it that way?