BY JOSH UTTER | December 13, 2019
When I volunteered for a refugee resettlement agency in St. Paul, Minnesota, I would often help resettled families set up their apartment. On one particularly cold day, as another volunteer and I moved items into the home, a neighbor next door stopped us to ask if we were moving into the house. We explained to him that instead, we were helping a family from Afghanistan set up their home.
Immediately, I could sense some unease from the neighbor. “I hope they are not like the last ones there,” he told us. “Those children had no respect and made too much noise.” I asked him where the last family came from and he did not know. As we continued to move furniture in, he assured us that if this new family was like the last one, “I’ll need to build a better fence. Maybe a wall.”Our lives lived behind walls are not helping us. Loneliness and social isolation are on the rise in the United States. Some voices are even calling for a war against loneliness. It is taking a toll on our physical and mental health as people seek ways to build community beyond family and the more traditional institutions of church or neighborhood clubs.
Meanwhile, our nation has chosen policies of exclusion and isolation to restrict access to our borders and to dismantle the asylum process. As a state, we do not want people arriving at our front door, most notably the desperate, although as a society, we feel lonely and instead turn to social media, our favorite streaming service, or substances to appease this desolate feeling.
Our homes seem to be empty of life, although people keep knocking at our door. Does anyone else see a contradiction here?
Maybe we are too afraid to answer. While the average American hardly notices the arrival of a refugee, a strong fear of the stranger persists due to harmful rhetoric spreading the false idea that murderers and terrorists slip into our country in the guise of the persecuted and oppressed. It is not the type of speech that inspires one to welcome a newcomer.
This fear of the stranger impacts the immediacy of assistance. As our neighborhoods and apartment buildings transform into shared spaces of anonymous strangers, a recently arrived migrant or refugee family will not receive the support needed to adjust and assimilate into a new place. It is no wonder why arriving in the U.S. can be a traumatic and isolating experience for someone already traumatized by conflict and violence—one can feel so incredibly alone. It makes one wonder why they even left their family behind.
Our society requires overwhelmed and (often) underfunded social service programs to take the place of the welcoming neighbor: a caseworker has to arrange for the preparation of a warm meal; a housing coordinator assists the family in setting up their apartment; a social worker drives the family to their medical appointments; an agency takes the place of a village. As a society, we need to step up and assist these efforts.
While I am not here to argue a direct correlation between increased loneliness and stricter immigration policies, I am here to make a point that it is about time to extend an invitation. Do we not have plenty to share? And is not a feast better enjoyed when there is some company? Loneliness and isolation are often best cured by some food and good conversation. Jesus has proven it a few times, so why not listen to what the doctor has prescribed.
Not sure who to invite? Then turn to the Gospel—Luke 14: 15-24 to be exact, the Parable of the Great Feast. When all the busybodies decline the invitation, the organizer of this great feast tells his servants to “‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’” A modern-day interpretation could include the refugee, the migrant, the one without a home, or that neighbor next door we do not know.
If you are wondering what you could do this holiday season, to be rid of any unwanted loneliness, why not make it a little less lonely for others? Prepare a meal for a migrant family in need. Gather friends to volunteer at a shelter. Organize a group to take action against policies that build walls and separate loved ones from each other.
Caring for others should reflect on how we care for ourselves. As stated by Pope Francis in his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “When we show concern for them, we also show concern for ourselves, for everyone; in taking care of them, we all grow; in listening to them, we also give voice to a part of ourselves that we may keep hidden because it is not well regarded nowadays.”
We can stave off loneliness through actions that build community. I believe Dorothy Day said it well when she wrote, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” So, I ask, what sort of community are you building? Don’t we want a strong community, not a strong wall?
Josh Utter is originally from Madison, WI, and a graduate of Loras College in Dubuque, IA. Based in Washington, D.C., Josh is the outreach and advocacy coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. He also currently serves as a resident minister on Georgetown University’s campus. Prior to his work in work in D.C., Josh was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone and spent time in discernment with the Midwest Jesuits.