The Rivers of Babylon: Exploring Exile, Displacement, and the Call to Hospitality

The Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe, the CCC’s Justice & Peace intern, delivered this keynote address at the Anglican Diocese of Toronto’s Outreach & Advocacy conference on Oct 15, 2016.

When I looked at the conference workshops, and when I look across this room, I am greatly humbled by the wisdom I see here today.

What I have to say will be, at best, a footnote in the wonderful work I know that many of you are pursuing in this diocese, in your parishes, and in your neighbourhoods.

Before we sit together by the rivers of Babylon, I’d like for us to first take a walk to a stream of water much closer by.

If you were to step outside of this school this morning, and take a walk out to the soccer field, you would pass by a stream.

The stream isn’t very visible. But its there. The plants tell us it is there. Where the stream flows, whether above or belowground, the trees and the grasses grow taller.

Long before my ancestors came to this land, this stream flowed unhindered, as a part of the traditional land of “the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. This territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.”[i]

Today, cut up between housing developments, warehouses, road systems and malls, the stream still flows, nourishing the land. Even if our way of life makes it difficult to see.

I speak to you today as a settler.

Canada may be my home, but I’m uncomfortable to claim it, as my native land. My family came to Southern Ontario in the aftermath of the First World War, as what we would today call economic migrants.

They came as indentured farm labourers, seeking a better life for their families (this was of course before the invention of the temporary foreign worker program…).

I begin here because I think it’s important that we confess to one another that the rivers of Babylon are not far away. We are sitting by them. We are sitting in a land that has been displaced, and we are amongst a people who live an exiled life in their home and native land.

It’s important we begin our consideration of hospitality here, because the way we think about our own practices of welcoming is very much attached to how we view the land upon which we have been welcomed.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

The psalm verse that marks the theme for today’s conference is from psalm 137.

Thanks to Don Mclean’s song “Babylon”, which is a paraphrase of the first verse sung in sequential rounds, this was the first psalm I heard as a child.

I remember gleefully putting the Don McLean 8 track cassette into my parents’ station wagon stereo as we began a family road trip.

Each member of the family would be responsible for singing one of the rounds, and even after the track ended, we would often continue to sing.

Yet while the Don Mclean song ends at the first verse, the psalm itself continues. Moving from an easily romanticised lament of a paradise lost, to a more troubling conclusion.

On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

We can see why Don Mclean decided to end his song after the first verse.

Had he continued, I doubt that the song would have found its way into my parent’s comfortably middle class station wagon.

Indeed, many of our churches and religious communities tend to find the entirety of this psalm uncomfortable, leading them to omit this last verse from their lectionaries, or, to abandon reciting the psalm altogether.

Too often we are happy enough to romanticize exile and displacement, and those who face it, but when we are faced with the gratuitous violence that describes the reality of theses experiences, its much easier for us to turn off, and to tune out.

As the father of a 16 month old, the last verse of this psalm makes me feel sick.

But, this psalm wasn’t written with Canadian middle class, white heterosexual, male Christian settler’s in mind.

 

Psalm 137 is the song of an oppressed people,
a displaced people,
an exiled people.

It is a song of resistance sung by the least, the last, and the lost.

As the Biblical scholar Erich Zenger explains, the Rivers of Babylon, were not exactly streams, they were more like shipping canals:[ii] a network of water roads used to transport the resources extracted from conquered peoples, to transport the conquered peoples who they had enslaved, and to transport the troops who would extract them.

This exiled people, possibly tasked with maintaining the very canals that had transported them into exile found themselves sitting by its waters.

Yet even as they sit, they can find no rest.

Their oppressors are bored. They need entertainment.

And while their oppressors have removed them from their traditional lands, and attempted to destroy their traditional culture, they now demand that this people preform that culture for them for their entertainment, that they sing them the songs of Zion.

But how could they sing the Lords song in a foreign land?

How could they sing about God’s providential care, about God’s love for them as they sit in misery and humiliation?

In protest, they hang up their instruments on the willow trees. They will not sing. They will not play. They will not allow their memory of Zion to be mocked. They will not allow their culture to be appropriated as a form of entertainment for their oppressors.

So they protest. They hang up their instruments and they pray.

It’s their prayer that we find most troubling, most uncomfortable.

They pray that God blesses those who pay back their oppressors.

Zenger points out that when we hear the word payback, what is being called for here is not unrestrained vengeance, but a form of justice known as lex talionis, in which the punishment for a crime corresponds in kind and degree to the injury.[iii] We usually call this an eye for an eye.

They ask God to bless those who dash the empire’s children against the rocks, because that is what the empire did to their children.

By destroying the children of the empire, not only would this bring the empire to justice for its crimes, it would also prevent a new generation of generals, soldiers, merchants, and political leaders from powering the engines of war and exploitation.

As Zenger argues:

The psalm is shaped neither by feelings of hatred nor by irrational revenge; it is a protest against the brutality of great powers toward small nations. It is a psalm from the lips of the victims of history and not the triumph song of victors.

The Psalm does not ask for the power to carry out punishment against the enemies by one’s own initiation but leaves it to God. To that extent the psalm is an implicit rejection of violence that places everything in God’s hand—doubt about God’s power as well as hope in [God’s] saving omnipotence.”[iv]

Whether or not we agree with this particular scholars non-violent interpretation of the text, what is clear, I think, is that this song is a song of lament, a song of resistance, and a song calling for justice from an oppressed people.

We should be uncomfortable with this psalm, not because of its call for violence, but because of its call for justice.

Psalm 137 is not a station wagon song.

It isn’t a psalm meant to be sung by the comfortable.

And I think we need to be careful that when we sing it, when we pray it, when we say it, that we are not appropriating the voices of the least, the last, and the lost in our city, in our country, and in our world.

If we sing this psalm, we can do so only insofar as we are in solidarity with those whose song this is.

And I think, that we also need to be careful, that when we refuse to sing it, to pray it, and to say it, we are not simply turning off and tuning out those same voices.

St. Augustine, in a typically monastic and patristic style of reading the psalms, has a different, yet equally challenging interpretation.

For St. Augustine, Psalm 137 is still a song of lament, resistance, and prayer, however it is one that he believes is also addressed to the church.

In his reading which draws on his previous work The City of God, Augustine suggests that Babylon represents the Earthly City, that place where justice is always lacking fullness, where misdirected desires, such as lust, pride, and greed give rise to the empires of our day.[v]

Zion, he claims, represents the City of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, where justice burns like a beacon, piercing and overcoming every darkness.[vi]

The church is neither Babylon, nor Zion, it is a band of sisters and brothers who are making a pilgrimage from their state of exile in Babylon, to Zion, to the City of God.

However, faced with the luxuries of Babylon, with the privileges of being a citizen of the empire, it is easy to be swept away by those rivers of prosperity, to be captured by them. Christians, especially rich Christians, Augustine argues, can forget where they are suppose to be wandering.[vii]

Augustine believes this Psalm is most fundamentally about our Christian witness in the world.

Again and again he asks his readers “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?[viii]

How can we preach the gospel in a land where the love that animates God’s revelation, doesn’t seem to reign?

His answer might surprise you.

We can’t. At least, there are times and places, where all we can do is to hang up our instruments in protest[ix]—in protest to a world in which God’s love cannot be heard, cannot be seen, and cannot be felt.

A world in which the rivers of Babylon have swept so many of us away, especially those in the church, that the song can no longer be heard.

I think, in our current time and place, Augustine is right (albeit, not for reasons he would probably recognize).

We hear again and again that we in the North Atlantic live in a post-Christendom world, a world in which people are no longer brought up to be Christian much like the early church.

A world in which the social, political, and economic power of the church has faded.

If this is true, if our world is more like the world of the early church, where Christianity is just one option amidst a multiplicity of others, then we have to stop and ask ourselves how compelling is our faith in a world defined by displacement and exile?

My brothers and sisters, there are many not only in this world, but in this very diocese who find themselves displaced, exiled, and looking for justice.

We have spent a lot of time talking about same sex marriage in our communities, and very little time talking about sexual and gender based violence.

According to the Canadian network of womens shelters and transition houses, 416 women and children reached out for shelter last year on a typical day. 73% were turned away. These numbers, combined with staff testimony, suggest that a significant proportion of shelters are chronically over capacity.[x]

What does our faith community have to say to the women and children who will be fleeing an abuser in this city tonight, but who will find no space in a shelter?

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

We have spent a lot of time talking about refugee sponsorship, and very little time talking about the realities refugee claimants face in this land. While we welcome those that we have selected, too often those who have selected us to welcome them are turned away.

A 30 minute drive from the stream by which we sit lies a refugee detention centre—a prison for asylum seekers.

Romero House, one of your workshop presenters today runs a mom’s and tot’s group there, because we imprison children in this country and in this city.

According to a report from the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights program, Between 2010 and 2014, an average of 242 children were detained.[xi]

Two of these children, unaccompanied minors, were locked into solitary confinement. One of them, was a young boy who fled Syria; held in solitary for 3 weeks; just 30 minutes away.

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

As you may know, we are facing a housing crisis in this city. Every single shelter in Toronto is over capacity, especially shelters for refugees. But those who are displaced and exiled haven’t stopped coming. They are still waiting for justice in their homelands, and so they come, often times carrying only the hope that we will welcome them.

What does our faith community have to say to the refugee family who might have to sleep on the streets tonight because there is no more room in the shelters?

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Many of our congregations have out of the cold programs to help feed the hungry, the sick, and the marginally housed.

But how many of our communities would welcome those same people into their choirs, into their pulpits, or even just into their congregations as equal members?

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Its not people we need to invite back to church on Sunday, it’s the church we need to invite back to its pilgrimage to the City of God.

As the Catholic theologian Gregory Baum writes,

“The City of God becomes present wherever people love and serve one another, but it gives way to the [earthly city], the proud city, whenever people become self-centred, pursue their own advantage, betray their friends and abandon social solidarity. For Augustine, the city of God is a vulnerable historical reality that must be built continuously by new deeds of love and service.”[xii]

“[F]ollowing the logic of St. Augustine—being socially engaged, buoyed up by the gift of hope, means to build networks of resistance, create communities of friendship and service, and promote a counter-culture of solidarity.”[xiii]

“The city of God is thus built in the midst of an imperial civilization.”[xiv]

While hospitality is not a replacement for justice, it is one way, I think, that we can stand in solidarity with those for whom justice is lacking.

We can provide spaces of safety and support out of our own places of comfort for those who find themselves exiled and displaced.

Hospitality is a means whereby those of us driving the station wagons (or their modern equivalents), those of us who have benefited from the canals of Babylon, those of us who are privileged through wealth, race, language, gender, sexual orientation, ability or place of birth can stand is solidarity with the least, and the last, and the lost.

We can sing psalm 137 simply by saying come. You are welcome here. And you are welcome here as more then an example of our inclusiveness.

Solidarity through hospitality means that we open ourselves up to the exiled and displaced, to the marginalized and the oppressed in a way that allows their voices and their songs to challenge and to change our own.

Now, as I said in the beginning, what I have to say today is a mere footnote to the work many of you are already doing.

My own work is in ethnographic moral theology, which is a shmancy way of saying that I think Christian ethics is best done by describing the lived experience of Christians who are struggling to help build the City of God in the place and time that God has given them.

And so rather than give you a bunch of abstract principles on solidarity through hospitality, I’d instead like to describe two of your own ministries where I see solidarity through hospitality at work.

The first is St. Stephen’s in the Field’s under the leadership of Maggie Helwig.

In the words of its website, “We are an inclusive and affirming Anglican community in the heart of the city, where we strive to live out God’s mission of compassion and justice for all people, and for all of creation.

We are committed to being a community of solidarity with those who have been pushed to the margins of our society, and to the task of building a better world.[xv]

St. Stephen’s lives up to that commitment, not through a social justice committee or separate ministry department of the church, but through just about every aspect of its ministries.

Take for instance, its

Safe Space drop-in program, where every Friday night, from 9 pm until the community breakfast begins on Saturday morning at 6:30 am, the church keeps its doors open to any who have need of a place of sanctuary.

All night, volunteers are on hand with coffee, snacks, and conversations. They also offer phone and internet access, and connections to crisis resources in case anyone comes seeking help. They stress that all are welcome.[xvi]

Standing in solidarity through hospitality is not confined to St. Stephen’s breakfast program and safe space drop in; it equally characterizes the worship life of the parish.

It is one of those rare spaces where the marginalized are not merely tolerated in the liturgy, but welcomed as people, people just as valuable as its more privileged members.

The parish of St. Stephen in the fields doesn’t welcome marginalized people to use them as an example of their inclusiveness, they welcome them as agents seeking grace, just like anybody else.

And they allow the voices of those they welcome to challenge, and to change their space.

I don’t want to romanticize this. Like Psalm 137, people who live an exiled life, people who find themselves displaced from our society are often wounded people, angry people, people whose struggles with mental health can disrupt our desires for order.

However, St. Stephen’s is a place that chooses people over order. And I have no doubt it costs them both in terms of numbers in the pews, and in terms of potential donors.

St. Stephen’s isn’t a station-wagon church.

It is however, a place that can stand and sing the Lords song in a foreign land.

Its Christian witness in our secular age is exemplary.

The second, ministry I’d like to highlight is just getting off the ground at your Cathedral. Seeds of Sanctuary is a new initiative started by the Cathedral’s new Curate, Leigh Kern.

After moving into the Cathedral Centre, Kern noticed immediately that her new neighbourhood was a place of great affluence, and great neglect.

Approached regularly by those on the street with stories of abuse, very often, sexual and gender based violence, Kern realized that she didn’t really know where to send them, or what resources were available nearby.

And so, together with a parishioner, Kern came to the conclusion that we as churches need to know the neighbourhoods in which we live, and the neighbourhoods in which we live need to know us.

Seeds of Sanctuary is an attempt to address this disconnect by leading neighbourhood pilgrimages from the Cathedral to the shelters, ministries, and the social service agencies around the parish, and the city.

It is a small first step in getting to know how the church might work in solidarity with those neighbours who are already there.

I suspect that’s why she named it seeds of sanctuary, because getting to know where our communities are located, getting to know both the land that we sit on, and getting to know the exiled and displaced who find themselves on that land plants the seeds that might someday grow into ministries of sanctuary, into solidarity through hospitality.

We simply cannot welcome those who our lifestyles and routines prevent us from encountering.

By beginning her ministry at the Cathedral by getting to know the land and the least, the last, and the lost who live there, Kern is helping the Cathedral community to stand and to and sing the Lords song in a foreign land.

What makes both St. Stephens and Seeds of Sanctuary exemplary is precisely that they are ministries oriented by the land itself, by the concrete places in which they find themselves.

As the post-Christendom shift moves us further away from the traditional parish model of ministry, a model in which a congregation’s ministry is meant to arise from the needs within its parish boundaries, we risk losing our sense of responsibility for our neighbourhoods and neighbours.

As Mary Jo Leddy, the theologian and a founder of Romero House argues, borders can be used to exclude others, however, they can also be used to mark out that place in the world where I am most responsible; in a world of overwhelming need, they delineate our boundaries of care.[xvii]

How we view the land upon which we welcome, the land upon which we have been welcomed, matters.

As deacons, laypeople, priests, and bishops, as baptized Christians we should all be asking ourselves, who are the exiled and displaced where we stand?

Where are our boundaries of care drawn, and how have we drawn them?

What can we do to stand in solidarity with the least, the last, and the lost?

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Now I grew up in an evangelical household.

So one of the places we would take that Don Mclean blaring station-wagon to in the summer, was an evangelical Christian camp.

At camp each year, we would learn not only the skills of archery, and canoeing, we would also learn how to dedicate our lives to Jesus. Every single year.

Now technically, we were only really supposed to do this once.

However, each year, a more or less charismatic preacher would come in and lead an altar call, and he—and it was always a he—would welcome forward not only those in the crowed who weren’t Christian, but also those who had fallen away from Jesus the previous year.

Never being sure if we were the ones he was talking about, if we were the ones who had fallen away, when the altar call came, we would all come forward. In fact, every child, every year would.

We thought: Better to be safe, then sorry.

And so dedicating our lives to Jesus, became an annual summer event.

Now, its easy for us to laugh at this, its pretty silly, but I think in a strange way, those preachers had something right.

It’s easy for us to fall away from following Jesus. It happened to St. Peter, it could happen to us. As St. Augustine reminds us, the rivers of Babylon are swift, and the currents of prosperity are strong.

Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are being carried away.

Sometimes we need to be called back towards the shore, back towards our pilgrimage to the City of God.

So I’d like to end today with an altar call.

An altar call to hospitality.

More specifically, for emergency housing for refugees.

There is someone in this room today who has an extra bedroom.

There is someone in this room today who has a spare office, a cluttered basement, a TV room, or a den.

There is someone in this room today who has no room at all. But there parents might! Or their eccentric aunt, or their grandparents.

There are churches represented here today that have empty classrooms. And dwindling congregations.

Maybe God has been emptying out our churches, to prepare us, not for closing our doors, but for opening them even wider, for preparing spaces in our homes, in our hearts, and in our congregations for the exiled and the displaced.
Maybe, like that stream that flows past the soccer field, and under the pavement, secretly nourishing the plants as it passes, giving them strength, helping the trees to stand tall, so too the Holy Spirit has been nourishing us, quietly giving some in this very room the strength they need to stand in solidarity through hospitality to these refugees now.

In preparation for this altar call, I’ve brought with me a sheet of paper. It asks for your name, how many people you are willing to host, and how many days you are willing to host them.

Sometimes refugees turned away from the shelters only need a place to stay for a few nights while they try to connect with friends or family who are already in the city, sometimes it can be a couple weeks before a shelter space opens, and occasionally it’s longer.

We all have different capacities to welcome. And I think we have much more capacity as a church then we are currently giving. Even a few days of emergency shelter can make a huge difference.

Now I don’t want to mislead you, I’m not giving this altar call because it’s a need. I’m giving it because it’s a desperate need.

The Red Door, one of the city’s shelters is about to close, which means around 30 families are going to have to find somewhere else to sleep.

At the same time, October and November are the busiest months of the year for refugee arrivals in this city. And the shelters are already full.

My brothers and sisters, how are we going to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

I will be around the rest of today, taking in some of the workshops and of course, lunch. And I’ll also be taking down the names on this piece of paper of those who feel called to stand in solidarity through hospitality, of those who are open to opening their doors to refugees needing emergency housing.

Even if you are just curious, just exploring the possibility, come talk to me.

At the end of the day, I will be giving this list to Romero House, who gets the call from the Red Cross when are refugees who are being turned away from the shelters. They will use this piece of paper as an emergency housing contact list for those times when no other spaces can be found; for those times when the alternative is for the refugee family to sleep on the streets.

If in the days that follow, you begin to feel that you have also been called, email me (ac.sehcruhcfolicnuoc@eflactem), and I will add you to the list. Or you can call Romero House directly (416-763-1303), and ask to be added.

When we were kids, we thought that when you’re dealing with matters of salvation, it’s always better to be safe then to be sorry.

And I think the same thing applies to the refugee families who will be looking for shelter in this city tonight: Its always better for them to be safe, then for us to be sorry.

And so I leave you by the rivers of Babylon with this poem by Leddy, as both an encouragement, and a challenge:

There is a knock at the door

of the place that structures

everything that is familiar and safe.

It is only the sound

of one hand knocking.

You can choose not to answer.

For reasons unclear even to yourself

you open the door slightly

and see

THE EYES and then

the blur of a face as it looks down

and then up again.

 

It is the face of a stranger,

the face of a woman.

You do not know who she is;

you do not know who you are.

You could close the door.

Perhaps she senses this.

The face of a woman with a voice says,

“Please help me.”

You could say No.

I am too busy.

I am too tired.

It is too late.

There are other places to go.

I do not know what to do.

 

You use to know before

you learned how the system can file

people away… forever.

You know you are, here and now

the one, the one who must respond:

This YOU must do. There is no other.

You have been faced.

The stranger moves forward

and fills the frame of your mind

and slowly comes into focus.

And you become focused.

You life becomes weighty, consequential, significant.[xviii]

Notes on Sources

[i] “Acknowledgement of Traditional Land,” Elders Circle (Council of Aboriginal Initatives), Council of Ontario Universities, http://cou.on.ca/about/more/traditional-land/ (accessed October 14, 2016).

[ii] Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150, trans. Linda M. Maloney, ed. Klaus Baltzer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 512.

[iii] Ibid., 523.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Augustine, Exposition on the Book of Psalms, trans. Members of the English Church (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1857), 159.

[vi] Ibid., 158.

[vii] Ibid., 170.

[viii] Ibid., 167.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Shelter Voices, Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters & Transition Homes, http://endvaw.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/ShelterVoices-2016-WEB.pdf (accessed September 28, 2016).

[xi] Hanna Gor and Yolanda Song, “No Life for a Child”: A Roadmap to End Immigration Detention of Children and Family Separation, ed. Samer Muscati (Toronto: International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, 2016), 9.

[xii] Gregory Baum, “The Meaning of Hope in Evil Times,” ARC (Spring 1992): 82.

[xiii] Ibid., 83.

[xiv] Ibid., 81.

[xv] Maggie Helwig, “Welcome to St. Stephen’s,” http://saintstephens.ca/ (accessed September 28, 2016).

[xvi] “Safe Space Initiative,” http://saintstephens.ca/safe-space (accessed September 28, 2016).

[xvii] Mary Jo Leddy, “Open Borders? How Open Should Canada be to Migration?” 2016 Keith Davey Forum on Public Affairs, University of Toronto, Victoria College, August 11, 2016.

[xviii] Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls us Home (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), 25.

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