US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Show me the way to go home

Father Daniel Berrigan reflects on refugees, Christ, and the American Dream.

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Article Justice

There isn’t much sense talking about “roots” unless you can also point to flowers, fruits, leaves, fronds, seeds.

Thus we point to what the poets call the human condition, borrowing from around us to look within us.

Refugees are uprooted.

You look into the eyes of boat children; they have the look of people torn out of their proper soil, their hair wild as roots, lives dangling in midair.

They’ve lost that look of flowers, that serene becalmed presence, an infinitely sweet persuasion and urging—“Be—like me!”

(Like the counsel to us, the land locked and long lost and God forsaken—“Be—like the children!”)

Your mind goes from the children to the flowers and back again, and you think of the children as the children think of the flowers, which is to say

not “How different they are from us,” but “How alike they are to us!”

Let’s borrow that likeness

and stretch it further—

They call these folk “refugees”

They call most of us these days “alienated.”

There’s something here about both them and us

Which is to say, (disclaiming jargon and psychobabble)

They and we have been told in unmistakable and chilly tones

“You Don’t Belong Here!”

“Here” being—where one was born—where one’s parents or maybe grandparents were born

—where one bought or built or rented or otherwise fitted nicely into a house

—where one knew by heart the back yard and front stoop and the dark hallway and the least glimmer of dawn light, and could sense like a flash the least change in decibel count due to a child’s illness or a parental hullabaloo

—and could small the symphonic odors of the evening meal before turning the handle of the front door

—and could do a head count of the kids; hellions and bookworms, builders and breakers, the permutations and ploys, by surveying the relics and debris on the living room floor, by cocking ear to the AM cacophony.

Now. Putting all this together in the perfume vat of memory we call the heart

and pausing frequently to breath the odor of the past, which is to say—

the present made available, credible, veritable—

We hear that boom boom on the ear, like a bullhorn backed by a platoon of bulldozers—

“You Don’t Belong Here! Don’t Belong! You There—Don’t Be Long! Move On!”

Now. As to that species our Lord had great trouble with, namely, ourselves—

He was always trying to make a totally impossible situation into a somewhat less impossible one

which is about the only sense I can make of the old bit called “salvation.”

Thereby he thought to save the essentially unsalvageable human predicament.

(Please allow the above in view of something less sombre to follow.)

I imagine him saying to crowds of furrow browed humans, especially the evicted and harassed and homeless and unemployed—

“Friends, I have a few suggestions to offer, having stood in your shoes from time to time (in fact almost all the time) and found that thought the shoes pinched, they fitted—

Having also been told how my family, rather immediately before my birth, was ordered

in stentorian, no uncertain tones, ‘Move it!!! Get down to Bethlehem, fast as food leather!!! Furthermore, your papers had best be in correct order and certified Grade A!!! Or Else!!!’

then there was that famous night; an angel jabbing a preemptory finger in Joseph’s rib and hissing, ‘Make hay! The Big Wahoo is checking out all little boys; he’s on the rampage for You Know Who. In short, You, Mary, and the Boy, Don’t Belong Here!’

Egypt? You gotta be kid—!


“Now dear friends

(this is still the sermon, my point is getting closer)

Not belong anywhere, if I may say something of my own situation, pretty much sums things up. (Jesus speaking)

This is not by any means to put down our fair country Palestine, to whose lilies, harvests, seas, pearls, farms, children, desert places, I am inordinately attached

as a muscle to the bone, as a heart to my frame.

But. As you are undoubtedly aware

sundry characters, whose motives we need not dwell on, Herod, Pilate, Caiphas, a truly wonderful symphony of sycophants

are muttering away in palace back rooms ‘trouble fomenters,’ ‘dissidents,’ ‘disloyal citizens,’ ‘tax refusers’—such words are bandied about.

 It is not difficult, given the circumstances, to conclude—

I Don’t Belong Here!”


Now. I’ve kept away from the word “alienation”

being convinced that our sense of not fitting in, of being unwanted, told to move on, dispossessed, foreclosed—

convinced that this sense of foreboding goes deep, deep, deeper than mere ordinance, mere psychology, mere politics.

The ancestors had a better way of putting the thing, namely:

We’ve been kicked out of Eden for conduct unbefitting.

So our native soil is exactly Nowhere!

If I may revert to Jesus, the following once occurred. There was hung out (as though by a clawed hand, sensing the arrival of a threat into the unchallengeable turf of the Claw)—a shingle bearing the words, No Room In The Inn!

Later on, the method improved. A proclamation was signed by every landlord and motel owner and sheriff in Palestine; No Place To Lay His Head!

Such events, I suggest, bring one to a fairly austere self-knowledge

A message lighting up the brain like the tower of the Times Building, to wit—

Your True Dwelling Is Elsewhere!

Finally, dear Friends, dear faces, dear effulgent beautiful suffering uncomplaining ones—

whose home was once Cambodia or Vietnam or Haiti or Cuba, or before that Hungary or Germany or Ireland or Russia or practically anywhere—

but in one awful moment, at the bang of a gavel or the thump of a rubber stamp

A voice in Rama yielded you up weeping, as the bullhorn blared—

“Elsewhere! Move It! Don’t Belong! Don’t Be Long! Move On!”

And you were shoved, hustled, driven, out into a dreadful no person land or sea

boat persons or camp persons or displaced persons, which is to say—non persons—

And at length, against every bet, unexpectedly, incredibly—

were delivered from death

like Jonah, like Daniel, Shadrach, Mishael, Abednego—like Jesus.


Dear friends, immigrants, ancestors—

Welcome to America!

Please remind us, please be reminded

We too await deliverance. Here too, there is groaning and travail, all creating longing for Room In The Inn, likewise A Place to Lay One’s Head.

Taken all in all, the rattling of nuclear sabres, the waste of the earth, volcanoes, urban uprisings, pollution, the swindling dollar, bats in the belfries, rats in the woodwork—

We too must hearken to a Promise, must lift up our heads, awaiting the redemption of our pitiful flesh, awaiting a new heaven and a new earth, a holy city, a new Jerusalem, comely as a bride.

Please wait with us, hope with us, work with us, until

He shall wipe away every tear, there shall be no more death nor mourning nor pain. Amen. Alleluia.


This piece was originally published in the October 1980 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Image: Flickr cc via CAFOD Photo Library

Wednesday, May 24, 2017