As somebody who grew up in Belfast in the ’60s and early ’70s, and remembers the vitriol of partisan divide, the stereotyping and scapegoating of the other, the soldiers in the street and helicopters overhead, I understand the desire for security. I understand the desire to be protected. But at what price?
When our desire for security is so great that it diminishes our humanity and our capacity or willingness to see the world through the eyes of another, we lose a precious part of who we were designed to be. Our hearts are hardened, calcified.
As a Northern Ireland Protestant living in Belfast at that time, Roman Catholics were unknown to me. They were a threat to our “religion,” a menace to the treasured union of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom. We were not brothers and sisters in Christ worshipping the same Lord, all made in the image of God.
It was as if the lessons of the crucifixion, the Book of Acts, Paul’s letters and the Protestant Reformation did not exist. Nothing to learn from St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, or many others who chose the simple way, the way of love, the way of Jesus.
Those early days in Belfast shaped me — and not for the better.
I couldn’t wait to escape, and in my early 20s, I did.
I wasn’t a refugee: I hadn’t personally suffered horrendously the way so many have. I had education and opportunity. I was an economic migrant and ultimately a successful one.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland continued for many years until one terrible day in Enniskillen there was an IRA bombing in the middle of the market square. It was Remembrance Sunday 1987 and the IRA detonated a bomb killing multiple people. I will never forget the images and what came next.
There, in the rubble, the cameras captured a father holding the hands of his dying daughter. A wonderful Christian named Gordon Wilson. Even as others vowed retaliation, he declared, “I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession, she was a pet. She’s dead, she’s in heaven, and we’ll meet again.”
The words he spoke went global, touching the hearts of millions and accelerating the peace process in my troubled homeland.
Today, 45 years after I left Belfast and now a proud American citizen, I have the privilege of leading a non-governmental organization where every day courageous Christ followers willingly go into places of extreme insecurity and even direct danger, places like Syria, Iraq, Darfur, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I lead an organization that cares passionately about the most vulnerable, that works tirelessly to equip staff and volunteers who daily welcome refugees who have fled persecution, war, and despair, to come to America — a land of hope and new beginnings for them.
If I have learned one thing from the examples of Gordon Wilson, of our staff, and of those we serve, it is that love is a more powerful source of human fulfilment than so much of what our society values in the western world. When we come alongside those who are suffering, those who are in need, when we give just a little of ourselves, it is we who gain the most.
We were made for purpose and it cannot be achieved when we stay in a cocoon of safety oblivious to our fellow humans. When we live in fear, we are diminished.
On Jan. 27 President Donald Trump announced a series of policy changes, ostensibly designed to ensure the safety of the United States, including an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, a temporary moratorium on all refugee resettlement, and a dramatic reduction in the total number of refugees considered for admission to our country.
The facts are that America already has a remarkably thorough — one might say extreme — vetting process to which each refugee admitted to the U.S. is subjected, a process more intensive than that required of any other category of immigrant or visitor to the United States.
You have to go back to the 1970s, to the era when I was still in Belfast, to come up with a single case of an American citizen who was killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by someone who came to the country as a refugee — and our vetting processes have been dramatically improved since then. The Cato Institute calculates the odds of the average American being killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist in a given year at 1 in 3.64 billion.
The risks are incredibly minimal, based on the data of past experience — but no one can guarantee absolute safety. While, gratefully, no Americans have lost their lives in recent years, there have been an exceptionally small number of cases of individuals who entered the country as refugees who have been implicated in attempted terrorist activity.
Let us recognize that life is full of uncertainty and there are many ways tragedy can strike, most of them much more likely than this particular risk.
Let us not compromise our compassion. It is what makes us human. And it is the way of Jesus.
Breene is the CEO of World Relief, a global humanitarian organization that is one of nine national resettlement agencies that partners with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees.