In college, I spent a semester studying in Paris at L’Institut d’Etudes Politique (Sciences-Po). For a history-loving, Francophile, it was among the best 5 months of my life. I struggled with a new language (although I considered myself relatively fluent before my trip, I rapidly realized I had overestimated my ability), a new culture, new transportation and, for reasons I still can’t fathom, a complete lack of ice in beverages.
My first day was spent getting lost in the streets of Montmarte looking for the hostel I planned to stay in for a week or so until I found an apartment. I was exhausted, utterly confused, somewhere between one block and two miles from where I needed to be and physically unable to carry my luggage any longer. A police officer was unable or unwilling to help. As I dropped my luggage on the Parisian streets for the 4th time, a woman asked if I needed help. She knew how to work the phones (I had no coins), to call the hostel for directions. She helped me get there… and was gone just like that. At the time, I was not entirely convinced she wasn’t an angel… either way she was definitely an agent of God to help me in my need.
In spite of the rough beginning, by the end of my time there, I felt like it was home. “Etudier a Paris, c’est naitre a Paris” (“To study in Paris is to be born in Paris”) as Victor Hugo wrote in “Les Miserables.” I still have friends in Paris and remember fondly the places I went.
When I heard about the attacks on Paris that left more than 120 dead, I was horrified. My 4-year-old daughter saw me watching a video about the attacks on my phone and asked what I was watching. I had to explain that bad people hurt a lot of other people in Paris. It was a tough conversation for me, and I imagine for most parents. Pope Francis echoed the thoughts of a lot of people when he said, “Such barbarity leaves us dismayed, and we ask ourselves how the human heart can plan and carry out such horrible events.”
Over the weekend, I read about one of the terrorists who may have accompanied the flow of refugees leaving Syria to escape Daesh (ISIS). Almost immediately I saw U.S. governors, politicians and others calling for the U.S. to stop accepting Syrian refugees.
In my job as designer for the St. Louis Review, I see many pictures of the plight of these refugees. From pictures of families in homes bombed by ISIS (or other groups in the Middle East) to children in deplorable circumstances to the death and destruction wrought on those who stayed behind. These images reaffirm the absolute necessity of helping these refugees, those who are truly seeking a place where they might simply live.
Nothing can justify the attacks in Paris and government authorities must do everything in their power to stop terrorist agents from entering countries with the intent to harm innocent people. I realize that this is tough to do for a lot of reasons.
It brings to mind the story of the destruction of Sodom in the Book of Genesis. God tells Abraham He is going to destroy the city, but Abraham intercedes, saying that surely the Lord won’t destroy the city if 50 righteous people can be found there. Abraham continues, pressing on to 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. The Lord says that if 10 righteous people can be found, He will not destroy the city. God agree to let Sodom stand if 10 righteous people (an incredibly miniscule percentage) can be found. In the case of the refugees, it is the opposite: we find an incredibly miniscule percentage of those plotting evil, while the overwhelming majority are the righteous – those seeking only to find a place to live without the fear of being killed. If we reject all refugees, we are effectively destroying these refugees. For the sake of the few, God saves the many… if we refuse to help these refugees, we are destroying the many out of fear of the few.
I don’t know the solution, I don’t know that any one person does. But I do know that rejecting Syrian refugees is not what Catholics are called to do. “Our efforts are going to be to reach out to people and to serve them,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said this week at the USCCB General Assembly. “My hope would be that the Church would continue to be able, within the law, to help those families.” On Thursday, the Missouri Catholic Conference released a statement on the terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis. The bishops stated, “It is true that none of these security measures can guarantee our absolute safety… In our view, appropriate security measures have been taken and our country should not refuse to welcome Syrian refugees who have been through the vetting process.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”As we begin the Year of Mercy, help us to show the Lord’s mercy to others. We must find ways to be able to help the refugees while still securing our borders against terrorists. God calls us to be His agents, to help these refugees find their way in a foreign land.
Stephen Kempf is a designer for the St. Louis Review. The opinions in this piece belong to him, and do not necessarily represent the views of the St. Louis Review or the Archdiocese of St. Louis.