In recent weeks, Canadian border agents in Manitoba, Quebec and elsewhere have been encountering asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa at the U.S. border, some bearing scars of frostbite from the sub-zero weather. These are not people who meant to end up in Canada. They originally came to the United States, seeking protection and refuge. But the actions of our government – especially the so far-foiled “ban” against refugees and people from Muslim-majority countries – have convinced them that there is no welcome here. In other words, our country, which once declared itself a haven for the outcast and persecuted, has now created a refugee crisis of its own.
To those of us who, like me, think of ourselves simply as “native-born Americans” in our less reflective moments, the experiences of these refugees seem utterly remote from our experience. We may observe with compassion and outrage, but perhaps not with visceral understanding. Yet recently, I became acquainted with a chapter of our UU history that is not so far removed.
I was on a family vacation in Iceland this summer. And if you grow up in a relentlessly UU family as I did, you get in the habit of always scouting for lesser- known branches of UUism whenever you are in a foreign country. So my dad and I decided to google “Icelandic Unitarianism,” and lo! – it’s a real thing. (I would later find out that one of our fellow parishioners was in Iceland at that very moment learning more about Icelandic Unitarianism from the world’s leading expert on the subject, Stefan Jonasson – go figure!)
It turns out that Icelanders, while their national church is Lutheran, evolved an unusually liberal and heterodox version of Christianity in their relative isolation. Then, in the nineteenth century, thousands of Icelanders left the island, fleeing the impact of disease, volcanic eruptions, and the despoliation wrought by Danish colonization. Most arrived in Manitoba and the Upper Midwest, where immigrants from other Nordic countries had already settled. In Jonasson’s telling, when the Icelanders tried to attend the stern Lutheran churches of their neighbors, they found the theology far too rigid and the God too lacking in divine compassion, compared to what they were used to. This led them to split off and form their own “free church," which later joined up with the Unitarians.
Most of us probably don’t think of Icelanders as either Unitarians or refugees. Or even as a distinct ethnic group. As a character in a Philip Roth novel says: “I didn’t even know you call them Icelanders. I didn’t even know they were here.” They, like American Germans, Scots, Poles, and so on – have long since been submerged in “whiteness.” As UU theologian Thandeka has argued, “whiteness” was a convenient identity for immigrants in North America to adopt. It brought with it privileges in America’s caste hierarchy. But the price of the bargain was historical amnesia. With the noble exception of certain Minnesotans, who still suffer through meals of lutefisk in order to remember the briny sea-soaked nights their ancestors endured to get them here, most “white” Americans have long since excised their refugee stories from their family narratives. I know I have. The Leaches may have been victims of the Highland Clearances, but I'm none the wiser of it if so.
This collective forgetting has led to the false notion that some of us are “native- born” and others are not. That some people “belong” and others do not. We have forgotten, in short, that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt, metaphorically speaking. Migration is an ancient and universal feature of the human drama. As a professor of mine in college, Jonathan Z. Smith, liked to remind us, “Everybody came from someplace else, and nobody is ‘at home.’” The story of the refugees in Manitoba is our story; their fate is our fate; if we would only remember.