By David A. Atkinson
In a recent issue of TIME magazine, Queen Rania of Jordan provided a piece advocating empowering girls with education, citing the value and virtue derived from such efforts. Both the message and the messenger have significance. As we know, arguments over the place of women in Islam are escalating. Even so, it is not just in Muslim majority nations where women find rights and opportunities sharply limited still.
Not coincidentally, a separate article in the same magazine described the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment here, while detailing the difficult circumstances that cause individuals and families to flee their homes.
Many people believe public policy and religion should never intersect. Yet, there are present day parables about what happens when people of faith take their energies beyond sanctuaries and places of worship.
Guatemala is a growing source of refugees seeking entry into America. Life for many there is shadowed by gangs, abuse, corruption, natural disasters, and lack of educational and economic opportunity, making harrowing exodus seem the reasonable alternative. Our political penchant for preaching to migrants about staying put and making the best of things does not solve their daily problems on the ground, nor does it allay their fear and desperation.
As the story of the Good Samaritan reminds, we are not restricted in offering caring and compassion by considerations of nationality, faith, or border. For more than a decade, members of my home congregation, Tree of Life Lutheran Church in Susquehanna Township, have participated in mission trips to Guatemala. They have brought vital education and health services and labor to supplying and fixing up orphanages. They have brought something even more precious than material goods – they have lit the light of hope and humanity in young hearts.
Several of these dedicated and visionary leaders, with strong support from the congregation, set up the non-profit Tree 4 Hope to provide an avenue for translating generosity of spirit into concrete, lasting results. A school for girls – Hope Academy – is being constructed, with the ground floor nearing completion. The first classes began operating several months ago, because these girls have already lost valuable time. The school is very basic by our standards, but students from the orphanage and the village have a safe and suitable place to learn. For them, it is a heaven-sent palace full of learning and exploration.
The necessity is easy to explain. While education is an effective antidote to poverty, many families simply cannot afford to pay for schooling. For some who can, the chance may only be given to one child, the oldest boy. Girls who do manage to get into a school frequently drop out, not due to lack of ability or lack of interest, but because of money problems, transfers from the orphanage, and family abuse. This is a compound tragedy, for the girls want to learn. They have ambition for what an education can enable them to achieve. They are positively excited to be in a classroom. Hope Academy may be the only place where these girls will get their chance at a better life.
Interestingly, the teachers are integrating English and Spanish in their lessons. They found the girls so educationally deprived that many struggle to read in their native language.
As another indication of resourcefulness, the site for the school is an avocado farm. The fruit trees and vegetable plantings will provide nutritious food and double as part of the science curriculum.
The responsible individuals spearheading Hope Academy have moved out of their comfort zones, and uprooted their lives, in the name of caring and giving to the less fortunate. That sure seems worthy of respect and commendation.
This seems an instructive and inspiring story, but the reaction is not uniformly positive. Individuals across the political spectrum ask: Why are we spending money down in Guatemala when there are so many problems in our country?
There are several good responses to this sort of skepticism.
Sure, there are persistent problems here in America requiring expensive solutions. Pick a field – education, health care, the economy, the environment, infrastructure – and we can readily catalog concerns. Helping folks out of poverty and misery is by no means an either-or choice. In our comparative affluence, we do not really comprehend how dire the situation is in underdeveloped nations, or how crushing the combination of official corruption and incompetence and prevalent violence is. Aggravating the situation, the foreign aid intended to help improve local conditions in three Central American countries has now been shut down.
If we are going to put up barriers to keep people out, and warn them to stay home, ought we not to assist them in making their homes safer and more welcoming places? Constructive work in Guatemala can yield benefits for Pennsylvania. There is a distinct possibility that lessons learned from the experience may eventually be applied to an educational effort here at home.
Our contributions need not be limited to countries from which large numbers of immigrants are coming. Our church also participates in a Central Pennsylvania effort called Tech 4 Tanzania, which arose from the special relationship forged with the Konde Diocese. This initiative is providing essential computer technology to assist the students at a Lutheran university there.
With all the public debate and protests over immigration, we tend to lose sight of the efforts of the quiet heroes in our midst. These individuals take it upon themselves to contribute money and sweat equity, in order to make a difference. Rather than using the words of the Bible to commend or castigate others, they actively endeavor to make Biblical teachings the operating principles of their lives. Whether the work involves providing disaster relief, or protecting from abuse and neglect, or alleviating food insecurity, we find remarkable individuals making extraordinary efforts to improve the lives of others.
Of course, the same is true of individuals who use the Torah or the Koran or other religious texts for their spiritual guidance. Doing good works is by no means purely the province of Christians.
The debate over how to protect our borders and how to revamp our immigration laws and policies is not going to lose its urgency or intensity any time soon. Those sympathetic to people who run the risks of coming to America and those who worry about the rule of law and our capacity to take on additional burdens hold legitimate views. Concession is not frequently in the cards these days. If we can pause and consider the good works being done by those outside the political arena, we can learn important lessons that might better inform the debate about the real causes of immigration. And that knowledge hopefully might cause our front-line actions to be less militaristic and more humanitarian in our remedies and responses.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.
*This article was originally published for the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy and is reprinted with the author’s consent