Hotel for refugees

In Ballaghaderreen (meaning, ‘the path by the little oak wood’), a town in the west of Ireland the people have opened their doors and their hearts to refugees fleeing the war in Syria. A town of 1,800, it had no experience of immigration but plenty of emigration. Like the country as a whole, they suffered the famine in the 1840s, land confiscations, unemployment and general hardship associated with the long British occupation.

And when they did emigrate they found a mixed welcome wherever they went. “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” was a sign seen on hostel doors where they sought lodging in Britain as late as the 1950s. Life in Ballaghaderreen is much better now but they haven’t forgotten.

But still, it was risky for the government to take over a disused luxury hotel in the town and make it available to the refugees. Culture, language and religion seemed an unbridgeable divide between the immigrants and their hosts. But a recent (7 November) BBC1 documentary has shown a “breaking down of the barriers” (Eph 2:14) as the locals rose to the moment and gave the Syrians a warm welcome. One scene shows Mary, a past middle age owner of a haberdashery, welcoming a young Syrian man and the conversation between them. Mary was intent on building bridges – not walls.

And the report shows the Irish found their faith to be the resource that helped them open their town to the strangers. And the Syrians responded drawing on their Muslim faith to appreciate the local Catholic church and visit it to pray there. When Jesus was told his relatives wanted to see him he turned to his disciples and said, “Who is my mother and brother?” And he stretched out his hand to those close by and said, “Anyone who does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt12:48).  That’s Ballaghaderreen for you!

And this is to the point as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family on the last day of 2017. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, snug in a little house in Nazareth with a carpentry shop in the yard, is not what we are celebrating. It is the “beyond” of the scene that we contemplate. We are not looking at a nuclear family content and self-contained in their comfort. Joseph has gone beyond his culture which expected him to divorce his wife when he found she was pregnant. Mary has gone beyond the normal understanding of conception in saying, “let it be done to me,” and, above all, Jesus, the Word of God, has gone far beyond the expectation of Israel in “pitching his tent among us” and being born like us in all things.

It is this “beyond” that captures our attention. The people of Ballaghaderreen went beyond what might have been reasonably expected in the circumstances. They have shown the Trumps of this world a path, a powerful sign – and there is a bit of Trump in all of us.

31 December 2017                              The Holy Family

Sirach 3:2 … 14                                  Colossians 3:12-21                  Luke 2:22-40

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