Sermon for Drowned Babies (A Life Raft)

But I guess I feel adrift today, because I think it’s easy to say the problem is way over there in that faraway sea. And it’s easy to feel good about ourselves if we send money or volunteer for people that we can understand as victims because we don’t have to live near them or face our own history with them. What happens, I wonder, when the refugees become our next door neighbors? What then? Because all over the world babies are drowning. In the neighborhood next to ours, in our schools, in the Rio Grande, in prisons. It’s easy to imagine all these dead babies as symptoms of different problems when, in fact, as James Baldwin wrote, “the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

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Wave of sorrow
Do not drown me now:
I see the island still ahead somehow.
I see the island
And its sands are fair:
Wave of sorrow
Take me there.
-Langston Hughes

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The country has no law; it’s either rich or poor
I’m out the back door; I got nuthin to fight for
I’m sailin’ on a boat like a goat–I clear my throat
-Wyclef Jean, “Refugees on the Mic”

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My 10 month old son suffers this week from his second daycare cold of what, I suspect, will be many daycare illnesses as his little body builds immunity he’ll need to survive in the great, big world.  At night, I enter his room to rescue him from the mucus that fills his throat.  He’s keeled over in his crib, soft head bent downward as his ribcage racks and heaves.  Once I pull him into my arms, he sometimes coughs so hard that he stops breathing for a moment; his face reddens and blues and his mouth moves into a silent circle.  “Breathe, baby,” I say, patting his back.  And he does breathe, coughing up snot balls that spackle my pajamas and collar bone.  Those brief, quiet seconds before he manages to take in air are the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced.  The child struggling for breath is a horror.

My baby boy lives, but other babies drown and die.  We know this because the photo of Aylan Kurdi has made its way into our Twitter feeds, a 3 year old dead baby washed ashore, his tiny water-logged Velcro sneakers like an extra, especially cruel turn of the knife in our hearts. He’s one of thousands of dead babies in our various seas, and we know this in the abstract, but the tangible image shipwrecks us.

When I first saw it in my Facebook newsfeed, I almost threw up in my classroom, so violent was my physical reaction to a dead boy. I had to get up from my desk and navigate through the sea of teenagers in the hallway to recalibrate my senses.  Pull it together.  Even as I smiled my way through a lesson on Dionysian impulses, my hands shook.

And now, the whole media-verse is beside itself, and the battle-cry among conservatives and liberals alike has started to sound, louder and louder.  Do something about those poor refugees, it screams.

I know a little about refugees.  My father, when I was a young child, worked for the YMCA Refugee services, resettling Cambodian, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese refugees that arrived, finally, in Houston after treacherous journeys across land and sea.  Occasionally we had a family living in our home for a few days while he–and others–worked to find shelter and employment for a father or mother.  One piece of family lore sticks out in my memory.  Once, when I was a very, very young girl a family of refugees accompanied my family to a Fourth of July celebration.  When the fireworks started, the entire family–father, mother, children–jumped into the lake that bordered the fireworks area.  What we understood as loud and glorious symbols of freedom in the dark summer sky–ramparts we watched so gallantly streaming–they understood as bombs.  “We should have known better,” my mother says when she retells it.  “Your father felt horrible.  Insensitive.”

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m trying to make sense of a few things.  Aylan Kurdi and the outpouring of love and attention from people otherwise content to leave others to their own problems and their own dinghies.  My own past.  And the other thing going on in my life this week: Resistance from people I love about the Black Lives Matter movement.  My snotty kiddo.  I can sense a low current or tide that connects these thoughts floating on the surface, a deep undertow.

Aylan’s father survived his two sons and wife, all of whom died after their boat capsized.  In a shaky interview, he said, “I am choking.  I cannot breathe.  They died in my arms.”

I cannot breathe, the same words uttered by Eric Garner as he died in the arms of police officers on the streets of New York City.  I’m also thinking of Samaria Rice–mother of 12-year old Tamir Rice, shot dead by police officers in Ohio while playing in a park with his older sister.  “They didn’t give him a chance,” Samaria has said.  After Tamir died, Samaria had to move her family into a homeless shelter, because she could not bear to live anymore so near to the park where her son died, alone, while his sister watched from the backseat of a cop car.

The word refugee comes from the past participle of the French, “refugier.”  It means “one gone in search of shelter” or “one in search of refuge and a home.”  I’m thinking Samaria Rice has been a refugee too.  I’m wondering how we so easily feel horror for people on the other side of the earth–as we should–but cannot acknowledge the others that live inside our own cities.  I’m thinking Tamir, Eric, Trayvon, Michael are drowned boys, also humanity washed ashore, but even mothers, even women who should know better, deny them their boy status.  Where were these horrified people when Samaria Rice’s dead boy washed ashore?  Maybe young black men are not allowed to be dead boys because they’re not allowed to be boys.

Aylan Kurdi wore Velcro sneakers.  Trayvon Martin wore white sneakers–soaked from the night’s downpour–and carried a packet of Skittles.  Tamir Rice wore black sneakers with white soles, and a stained t-shirt he’d worn for many days in a row, and for which other kids made fun of him.

I cannot breathe.

They died in my arms.

I cannot breathe.

They didn’t give him a chance.

He was a kid.  A fun-loving kid.

I cannot breathe.

Well-meaning people are invoking Jesus as they call for a response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Jesus was a refugee, they say.  Love thy neighbor, they say.  They’re right.

But I guess I feel adrift today, because I think it’s easy to say the problem is way over there in that faraway sea.  And it’s easy to feel good about ourselves if we send money or volunteer for people that we can understand as victims because we don’t have to live near them or face our own history with them.  What happens, I wonder, when the refugees become our next door neighbors?  What then?  Because all over the world babies are drowning.  In the neighborhood next to ours, in our schools, in the Rio Grande, in prisons.  It’s easy to imagine all these dead babies as symptoms of different problems when, in fact, as James Baldwin wrote, “the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

The Syrian political crisis is not the same as our American political crisis, and certainly the sheer numbers–over 4 million Syrian refugees and 3 million Iraqis–indicate a humanitarian crisis of the highest order.  We bear no little amount of responsibility in that crisis too.  But our ability to ostracize and dehumanize the “other” is a universal across time and history and nation and creed.  As we denounce the cruelty in other people’s oceans, I hope we have the wisdom to send rescue ships into our own.

Drowning has long been been used as a metaphor in Black American literature, which makes sense given the sea-crossing slaves endured (or didn’t) in the holds of dank ships tossed about by the Atlantic.  At a more literal level, in “A Racial History of Drowning,” author Lynn Sherr tells us that before the Civil War more blacks could swim than white people.  “Segregation destroyed the aquatic culture of the black community,” she reminds us.  As black people were excluded from pools and lifeguarded beaches, and forced to live in neighborhoods without community pools, the chances of black children drowning grew and grew.  According to the CDC, African-American children drown at a rate nearly three times higher than white children.  And there are so many ways to drown.

“I don’t want anything else from this world,” Aylan’s father told CNN.  “Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and stay with them until I die.”

I cannot breathe.

They died in my arms.

I cannot breathe.

They didn’t give him a chance.

He was a kid.  A fun-loving kid.

I cannot breathe.

My son, my son, my son

The tempestuous waters rise first in our hearts.  The words “love they neighbor” become empty vessels, rickety dories run headlong into a stark wind.  Let us build big, strong boats of hope in every dangerous sea so all our babies can breathe.

Amen.

One thought on “Sermon for Drowned Babies (A Life Raft)”

  1. Casey, Sitting in my car, tears flowing, trying hard not to shake with sorrow, rage, and frustration. Sometimes I feel so alone in my world, can I just start anew, if not how to be me, without the weight of my “friends” indifference/ignorance/insular behavior? Good people, yet not people of my heart. Am I so wrong? Can I speak without alienation, not really. Keep writing child of mine. You fill me up. 💚

    Teri Fleming

    >

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