Love in Action
Synopsis: We were all shocked by photo of a Salvadorian father and his two-year old daughter who drowned while swimming across the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the U.S. Our outpouring of compassion is, however, generally short lived. Haydee Diaz, who works with Catholic Relief Service to support refugees in Uganda, shows us that supporting desperate refugees is not that hard. Likewise, Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan emphasizes that right words mean nothing if they’re not accompanied by right deeds. What matters in putting our love into action.
We were all recently shocked by the photo of Oscar Ramirez, a Salvadorian father and his two year old daughter Valeria, who drowned when trying to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the United States. It brought back memories of the photo of a little Syrian refugee boy whose body washed ashore on the Mediterranean Sea that went viral several years ago. Such photos create an outpouring of heart-felt compassion but it’s short-lived. What will it take for us to truly regard the pain of others and be moved into action? What does love in action look like? Like many, I’m outraged by the refugee crisis on our southern border.
It’s not only that people drown crossing the river or die in the heat of the desert in desperate attempts to find asylum when they’re turned back at a port of entry. An added horror is our policy of separating children from their parents when they do manage to cross the border and the horrible conditions children endure in crowded detention centers without sanitation and basic necessities. Such utter disregard of the suffering and the pain of others means we’ve lost our moral compass and have given up any pretense of following Jesus.
As the richest country in the world, we could do so much more if we wanted to. In comparison, Haydee Diaz, the head of programs in Uganda for Catholic Relief Services, describes how Sudanese and Congolese refugees fleeing violence and political unrest are treated when they enter Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world. Nobody is barred from entering. Uganda is now accommodating more that 1 million refugees in twelve different refugee camps. Haydee describes what happens when refugees cross the border:
I frequently witness the arrival in Uganda of these refugees, 80 percent of whom are women and children. (Women and children make up the majority of asylum seekers at the U.S. border, too). I see exhausted mothers carrying all their household belongings on their backs or their heads in tidy bundles. . . .
Workers present them with soap, water, containers for carrying and storing their things, blankets, sleeping mats and high energy biscuits—the sorts of things denied in the American facilities. The families are then registered and assigned to a living area.
To start, newcomers are given supplies to build temporary shelters. Many then go on to construct traditional mud huts with thatched roofs, and the most vulnerable—including family groups headed by children—receive support to build more substantial homes. Schools, latrines and other structures are erected as quickly as possible.
While there are always gaps in services, humanitarian agencies such as Catholic Relief Services work with the Ugandan and local governments and other groups to provide a range of integrated services. They recently built a water system, organized five schools for 10,000 children, and trained 6,000 farmers on how to better market the crops they raise on their small plots.
What’s striking is that most of these projects are funded by the U.S. government which budgeted $132 million for programs in Uganda this year. Given that, why can’t we do better on our own southern border? Why do we instinctively want to build a wall and turn people back? Haydee Diaz knows from personal experience the ability of the U.S. government to extend a welcoming hand. She recalls:
In 1980, my parents fled Cuba in the Mariel boatlift. I was 5 years old. I vividly remember landing in Key West, stepping ashore. A U.S. Coast Guard officer handed me an apple. Then, my family and other refugees were shown to an airplane hanger where we were supplied with fresh clothes, the chance to shower and beds to rest. Treating refugees with dignity just isn’t that difficult.
This brings us to the lawyer who asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus doesn’t answer directly and, instead, responds with a question of his own, “What’s written in the law?” The lawyer answers, “You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole being, with your whole strength, and with your whole mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”Jesus tells the lawyer that he answered correctly. “Do this and you will live.” Still not satisfied, he then asks, “And who is my neighbor?” He knows the answers to his own questions and Jesus completely agrees with him. So what’s wrong with this conversation? According to biblical scholar Fred Craddock:
All kinds of things are wrong. Asking questions for the purpose of gaining an advantage over another is not a kingdom exercise. Neither is asking questions with no intention of implementing the answers. . . Having right answers does not mean one knows God. Students can make a four-point in Bible and miss the point. Jesus did not say to the lawyer, “Great answer! You are my best pupil.” Rather, Jesus said, “Go and do.”
Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan touches the heart of the matter. This is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. We think we know it and that may be part of our problem in letting it speak to us. According to Kristin Berkey-Abbott, “That familiarity can prevent us from actually hearing the story, the way we might hear it if it was new to us.” She suggests a method for seeing a familiar story in a fresh way. Ask yourself, “Who am I in this story?”
We can see a story differently by looking at it through the eyes and viewpoints of different characters. Many of us want to believe that we would be the Good Samaritan. We are trained to see ourselves as the hero. We don’t want to believe that we might avoid those who need our help, the way the priest and the Levite do. We don’t want to see the ways we ambush each other, as the robbers do in the story. Perhaps we’d prefer to be the innkeeper—the character who gets to play a part in caring for the person in need without being the one who takes the risks.
Kristin formulates some questions that might help us approach the story from different angles:
- Who is in our path who needs help?
- What do the wounds look like? Not everyone who needs help will bleed in obvious ways.
- What roles do we play that might keep us from seeing those who need help?
- When we can’t help in a direct way, how can we be like the innkeeper and play a supporting role?
- What resources do we have to share?
- How can we help suffering people with their physical needs?
- What other kinds of suffering might we alleviate if we shared resources?
- When is sharing our financial resources the best way we can help? When do we need to play a more active role in bandaging the wounds?
- What other ways can we show love for our neighbors? How do we translate love into action?
We tend to dwell on the two religious leaders who passed by the wounded man lying by the side of the road. Before we get too self-righteous, we need to ask ourselves how we pass by and refuse to see the dire needs of others. But this is not the focus of Jesus’ story. Instead, someone we despise, the person we would least expect to help, becomes the hero in the story. The Samaritan was a social outcast and a religious heretic. Who would that be for us? It might be a white nationalist who stops to save a desperate refugee in the desert when more pious and politically correct people avert their eyes and keep their distance.
All our right theology or political thought won’t cut it if it doesn’t lead to action. It’s more than a matter of checking boxes. Love God, check! Love my neighbor, (most of the time) check! The love in action in Jesus’ story is costly. The good Samaritan prolonged his journey to help the man in need. He took a personal risk by stopping to help. There was no guarantee that the robbers weren’t lying in wait for their next victim. The good Samaritan was also generous. He left two day’s wages with the innkeeper to care for the wounded man and promised to cover any remaining expenses when he returned. He’s our model for putting love into action.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott sums it up, “If we start looking for opportunities to bind the world’s wounds, we’ll find that the world has no shortage. We show our love for God by loving each other, and the ways we show love for each other are as varied as humanity itself.”
 Haydee Diaz, “It’s not hard to treat refugees decently,” The Washington Post (Sunday, June 30, 2019): B7.
 Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 150.
 The Christian Century firstname.lastname@example.org via gmail.mcsv.net
 Kristin Berkey-Abbott, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (July 3, 2019): 18.