A GENEROUS NATION
Moses said to Israel, For the Lord your God…executes justice
for the orphan and the widow, and…loves the stranger, providing
them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you
were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deuteronomy 10: 17-19
Like the people of ancient Israel, we Americans, at our best, have al-ways struggled to be a generous nation. It’s part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The spirit of generosity is implied in all our founding docu-ments. The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate today, says we all are created equal and entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Preamble to our Constitution states as its purpose to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The Bill of Rights (the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution) is all about how justice is to be served and applied among human beings, at every level of society.
Our nation’s founding documents have always implied a spirit of ge-nerosity. If justice is to be more than skin-deep, it requires our willing-ness, like Israel’s, to extend ourselves for the sake of others, and espe-cially, as it were, “for the orphan…the widow…the stranger”—in other words for all who need our care. But generosity has always been a struggle. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the issue of sla-very. All our early presidents saw the inconsistency, not to say the out-right evil, of slavery in the light of our founding principles. But they were slave owners themselves; and the economy in those years was largely fueled by slave labor; and the threat of secession by South Carolina and other states imperiled the very survival of our young nation. Hence, the issue of slavery, largely by common consent, was kept under wraps for generations, until it finally erupted in the Civil War.
America’s struggle for generosity reflects the struggles of ancient Israel, and of nations throughout history, to be just, to resist oppression, to care for the poor, and to assure the wellbeing of all people. It is always a “struggle,” because we human beings are by nature self-serving people—particularly toward “strangers,” as the passage from Deuteronomy reminds us. And our temptation is to label as “strangers” all those toward whom we don’t care to be generous, to regard them as outside the bounds of our concern. Hence, black people were labeled as less than fully human; so were American Indians; and both were treated accordingly. A huge issue today, as we all know, is how to treat immigrants. We so easily pass immigrants off as strangers. What should be our stance toward them? What does justice require of us?
The fact of the matter is that all of us are, or have been, strangers, as Moses reminded the Israelites. Except for Native Americans who were here in the first place, our forebears, yours and mine, all came to these shores from somewhere else. Indeed, it is in the very nature of our country to be a meeting place of strangers, and to care for one another across the bounds of origin and circumstance and need. We are to treat one another with generosity. We are not to label anyone as out of bounds or unworthy of our care and concern. Engraved on the Statue of Liberty which greets all who come to these shores through New York Harbor are the immortal words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” At its best, the United States has always responded generously to that yearning.
One spring evening in 1980, some fifteen or so members of the parish I served in Newport News drove in carloads over to the Norfolk airport to meet a flight coming in from California. Two or three of us were allowed to board the plane to greet our guests; and I shall never forget what we saw. Emerging from their seats were a Vietnamese mother named Kim-Chi Le, her eleven-year-old daughter named My-Hanh and a younger brother Quoc-Anh. These were “boat people” whom our parish had agreed to adopt. They had escaped from Viet Nam the previous May in a tiny boat filled with refugees, bound for Malaysia. They had survived mountainous seas, had nearly swamped, and had been attacked several times by pirates who stole most of their valuables.
Kim-Chi, My-Hanh and little Quoc-Anh came off the plane utterly ex-hausted. All of them were sick—Kim-Chi had to be hospitalized—but a doctor in the parish saw to it that they received proper medical care. Gradually the rest of their story unfolded. For political reasons the fam-ily had had to split up in order to escape. Khanh, the husband, was forced to stay behind with their three other children. Some years later, after several attempts, he and one child managed to get out; the two others, twins, disappeared and were never seen or heard from again.
St. Andrew’s Parish enfolded Kim-Chi and her children in love, mainly thanks to an extraordinarily generous-hearted parishioner named Elsie Duval who, with her husband Addison, had the vision and staying-power to encourage the rest of us to hang in there with that little family and help them with housing, health care, language, education, employment and the manifold other needs of these strangers from another land. It all took many years, and continued long after we moved on to Richmond. Here’s how it turned out: My-Hanh went through high school, received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Virginia Tech, and accepted a position with Price-Waterhouse. Her younger brother Quoc-Anh went on to become the valedictorian of his high school class and graduated from the University of Virginia. His senior research thesis on the functioning of the brain was published by the American Medical association. He received his medical degree at Johns Hopkins, interned in general surgery and was appointed to the neurosurgery faculty. He has also served as a surgical volunteer in Africa.
Kim-Chi, the mother, although she had been an accountant in Viet Nam, had a much harder time than her children with the language, as is so often the case. But she persisted, used her cooking skills for a time in the restaurant business, worked for sixteen years in the Department of Public Welfare and retired in 2004. All that time, she pursued her education, and a few weeks ago she graduated from Christopher New-port University with a Bachelor of Arts in the Philosophy of Religion.
We Americans are called to be a generous nation. And the thing I want us all to remember and celebrate on this 4th of July is that we Christians are uniquely blessed and equipped to be generous citizens ourselves and to encourage others. Elsie Duval and her fellow pari-shioners exemplified that spirit in their outreach to Kim-Chi and her children. The same spirit is abundantly evident at St. James’s in all the outreach that goes on here. But it is a struggle; it is always a struggle in our self-serving society. It takes grace; it takes staying power. It takes a glad willingness to be as radical in our love for others as Jesus was when he said to his friends, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” On this 4th of July, let us recommit ourselves to be part of a generous nation in which no one is a stranger, a nation which lives out in justice and truth the principles on which we were founded.
A GENEROUS NATION