Making Room

Wendy McDowell

[A] custom . . . existed among the first generations of Christians. . . . In every house then a room was kept ready for any stranger who might ask for shelter; it was even called "the stranger's room": not because . . . they could trace something of someone they loved in the stranger who used it, not because the man or woman to whom they gave shelter reminded them of Christ, but because—plain and simple and stupendous fact—he [or she] was Christ. —Dorothy Day1

On my way into work the other day, I heard two NPR stories within minutes of one another. The first concerned a shift in the Asian American vote in presidential elections during the last twenty years, from Republican to increasingly Democrat, "the most dramatic swing in recent presidential voting behavior across any demographic."2 Though multiple factors are at play (and some shifting back has occurred in midterm elections), one of the main reasons that Asian Americans reject certain candidates is their "anti-immigrant rhetoric." Nearly three-quarters of Asian American adults were born abroad, so they are attuned to messages of exclusion versus messages of welcome.

The second story was focused on Hungary's hostile reaction to the asylum seekers from Syria. Hungary has constructed border fences and made "illegal" entry into the country punishable by a three-year jail term.3 But this particular interview featured a former prime minister of Hungary who has chosen to welcome refugees into his home. "Working with a charity group that helps identify particularly exhausted migrants to host," Ferenc Gyurcsány and his wife, Klára Dobrev, go out of their way to ensure their refugee guests will experience "one normal night."4 With five children of their own, the couple has "moved their six-month-old baby into their own bedroom to offer more space for migrant families."

A thread running through a majority of the essays in this issue has to do with hospitality to the "stranger" and its opposite—hostility, fortification, and exclusion. Who do we let in, and who do we try to keep out?

Knee-deep in editing the current issue, I drew connections between these two stories. It is no wonder that Asian Americans pick up on the anti-immigrant fervor in some political corners.5 Though we may be quick to judge the Hungarian government's actions, Maura Fitzgerald's "Borderline" makes abundantly clear that the United States is well ahead of Hungary in the wall-building business, and the militarization of our southern border has directly contributed to the deaths of thousands. Our country, too, chooses to punish the desperate people who cross our borders "illegally" with jail time and deportation—Fitzgerald takes us to a Tucson courtroom where imprisoned migrants are "judged en masse."

A thread running through a majority of the essays in this issue has to do with hospitality to the "stranger" and its opposite—hostility, fortification, and exclusion. Who do we let in, and who do we try to keep out? What rhetoric do we employ to justify torture, deportation, deprivation, or exclusion from power? What does it mean to practice a radical ethic of hospitality, as opposed to supporting (whether actively or tacitly) policies like extraordinary rendition or Operation Streamline or racial profiling?

In these pages, the issue of inclusion versus exclusion is raised not only regarding who we allow inside our national borders, but who we let into our academic discourses and historical records. Gary Dorrien, Jennifer S. Leath, and Aisha Beliso-De Jesús all aim to rewrite our narratives to include figures, movements, and ideas that have been invisible for far too long.

As the world responded to the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach (I, too, shed tears for him), fresh in my mind was Pedro Morales's account of growing up on the streets of Juarez. Before the North noticed his city's "bloody war," he was "vulnerable to attacks from all sides, at any time and without reasons or warning." He watched other young boys sniff glue and be destroyed by neglect, yet he and his friends were labeled "externalities" by the profit-making interests in Juarez. Morales's sense of invisibility was borne out when I searched for images of street children in Juarez. I found precious few.

In her essay, Marisa Egerstrom points out that few public images have come out of Guantánamo, and the handful of photographs "seem to suggest the inevitable success of a swaggering American dominance over both Islam and terror." Her appreciation of Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantánamo Diary notes how remarkable it is—miraculous, even—that this testament has managed to be published and that Slahi "has so far survived . . . [and] been able to withstand the grinding absurdity of his arbitrary detention with his curiosity, mind, and faith largely intact." Because one detainee who was supposed to be invisible now speaks to us, the world can see "who Americans really are, and yet he invites us to imagine being otherwise."

Ann Neumann's piece on end-of-life care draws attention to the disregarded "domestic workers" who bathe and diaper and feed more privileged Americans from cradle to grave. She writes, "Maria and those like her are invisible, their lives unseen, their labor undervalued, their stories unheard." Likewise, Leath's project of "quareing justice" involves "reflecting back images and voices of the 'hyper(in)visible' and 'hyper(in)audible.' "

Dorothy Day's suggestion that we keep a "stranger's room" in our homes is challenging precisely because it asks us to make room for someone who might otherwise be "invisible."6 I'm ashamed to admit that I immediately started coming up with reasons why I could never do such a thing: Our place is too small. I'm too much of an introvert. What if someone took advantage of our kindness? Would I have to give the stranger a key? Right away, I had to confront my deep-seated fears and defenses, those internal borders and walls I have fortified to protect me—but from what or whom? Am I afraid of the demands my conscience would make on me? Once the unseen person has sat at my breakfast table, I would no longer be able to shut out her suffering.

Thankfully, there are already some among us who model the art of hospitality, who actively resist the hardening of lines and of hearts, who leave jugs of water in the desert and open their doors to weary migrants. When asked if the crackdown will change his family's behavior, Gyurcsány's closing words are an inspiration: "There is a rule of life, and there is a rule of the government of Hungary. And if these two rules are conflicting, we have to choose the rule of life."

Notes

  1. "Room for Christ," The Catholic Worker, December 1945, 2.
  2. Asma Khalid, "How Asian-American Voters Went from Republican to Democratic," Morning Edition, NPR, September 16, 2015.
  3. Recently passed anti-migrant laws also give police the right to enter private homes if they suspect migrants are hiding there.
  4. Eleanor Beardsley, "A Former Hungarian Leader Hosts Migrants, despite Government Crackdown," Morning Edition, NPR, September 16, 2015.
  5. Studies reveal that U.S. "natives who emphasize an ethnic conception of national identity" tend to hold more restrictionist attitudes toward immigration than "those with civic conceptions of national identity." See "Public Attitudes toward Immigration: Research Review," Journalist's Resource, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School.
  6. "It would be foolish to pretend that it is always easy to remember this," Day herself acknowledges.

Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

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