Next door to our Jesuit community on East 83rd Street in New York stand two magnificent magnolia trees that have been blooming early this spring. Each splits at its base into paired trunks that then climb four stories high, their branches reaching toward each other and bearing countless blossoms that seem mysteriously delicate and hardy at the same time. Our magnolias are of the Alexandrina Saucer species, and so their blossoms are white at the perimeter, then become blush pink and blood red at the center. Their undulating canopy looks like Eden before Adam’s sin and, from below, like the dome of heaven itself.
The beauty, the rainbow-hued creativity of nature, is beyond our dreams.
Yet we also know its destructive power. The sea can sink the grandest of ocean liners. A dormant volcano can erupt and bury in ash an entire city. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 devastated the city and shook Enlightenment philosophy to its core. And now a pathogen, known as the coronavirus, has been released on the world and threatens its every citizen.
At Jesuit Refugee Service/USA in Washington, D.C., where I have been blessed to serve for almost five years, we continue in our commitment to accompany, serve and advocate for refugees and displaced people on every continent—now numbering over 70.8 million (of whom over half are children). Our team continues to work hard for those we serve; to tell the stories of refugees and create awareness of their particular vulnerabilities during this time; to plan and seek opportunities for the fall and beyond so that we are ready to move forward when the crisis is over; and to respond to U.S. government policies in the wake of Covid-19 that may affect refugees and asylum seekers.
And despite the fact that group religious services have been canceled at U.S. detention centers, our chaplains continue to provide pastoral care for detainees who are cut off from their families at this stressful time.
The beauty, the rainbow-hued creativity of nature, is beyond our dreams. Yet we also know its destructive power.
For now, the overall picture is a dark one, of an endangered humanity threatened by an uncontrollable nature, its bounty turned brutal. The number of refugees and others affected by the crisis in countries where we offer programs is growing dramatically daily. Even now, many programs that are deemed not essential are being canceled. But there are many essential services that our staff are continuing to provide despite the risks to themselves, including education on avoiding transmission of Covid-19.
For now, like so many others, our JRS/USA team works from home—teleconferencing, sending and receiving ever-more emails, using Zoom and who knows what all else. We are separated physically for very good reasons. But this is when we most would like to be together—for the glances, the pat on the back, the random jokes, even the annoyances that we now see so quickly pass. Just the look of our colleagues’ faces. Not seeing them regularly, we send them beautiful poems or favorite songs, or images from museums now closed. All because it is true that beauty will save the world.
Call it tele-caring: loving our neighbors in as practical a way as we can, not simply by intention or words but by deeds and action, even if done at a distance.
And then there are the doctors and nurses and scientists world over who are working day and night to treat and eventually cure those infected with this scourge. A few of the health experts’ names are familiar. But they are our new heroes—saints, really—who are doing with their knowledge and skills what we all long to do: heal the sick. And then, especially for the displaced of the world, to return to accompanying and educating and advocating for them.
Call it tele-caring: loving our neighbors in as practical a way as we can, not simply by intention or words but by deeds and action, even if done at a distance and through the gifts and dedication of specialists we prize now more than ever. Somehow, I remember the story in the Gospel of John about the royal official whose son was deathly sick and sought out Jesus to ask him to come and heal him. Although Jesus distrusted the people’s desire for signs and wonders rather than the deep trust of faith, he told the official that his son would live. When the official believed in that promise of life and returned home, he found the boy indeed well again. The power of God in his incarnate Word had worked health—at a distance.
So let us remain in trust together, even if many of us are physically apart. With courage and patience, let us work in support of all who need us, as we indeed need them: our true sisters and brothers. As we care, I am convinced, we will learn to hope more deeply for our shared future. Hope will not only endure but blossom, like a magnolia tree of the heart, planted by the love that moves the sun and the stars.