Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #097. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Aug. 1, 2015; in print Aug. 2

What sort of place is the greater St. Cloud area? Minnesota? America?

These questions lurk beneath the surface of some Times news reports, commentary columns and letters to the editor that in recent months have focused on refugees and immigrants who have settled here. Allegations and insinuations have often submerged facts.

Some level complaint at Lutheran Social Service. One of the largest nonprofit social service agencies in Minnesota, LSS is accused of profiting from refugee resettlement (indeed, of stealing from taxpayers for its own benefit), lack of transparency, and aiding and abetting, perhaps unwittingly, a Muslim conspiracy to take over America.

One critic, Paul Lysen of Annandale (in a July 17 letter), even suspects “leftists in the State Department and Lutheran Social Service” of helping the DFL party increase its vote totals: “If enough Somalis and other minorities can be shipped to St. Cloud, the political balance could be tipped in the Democrats’ favor.”

Take this last point first. The suspicion that refugee resettlement is part of a DFL plot can be laid to rest, or at least moderated, by a Times article (June 12, 2014) about the equal opportunity support Republican Jim Knoblach provided Ismail Ali in setting up a day care center in Sauk Rapids. “I think it’s in our interest as a community to see the Somali population become educated and be able to get jobs in our community and be able to contribute to the community,” (Knoblach) said. “Many of the Somali here are doing that already.” Support for refugees is not partisan.

Back to LSS. At its website: “Our work is grounded in two principles — God loves all people without condition and God yearns for us to love the neighbor.” This is bedrock Christian conviction — more fundamental than the opposing point of view which says America is a “Christian” nation allergic to Islam, and that the only neighbors we’re called upon to love are members of our own in-group. The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable saw the Samaritan as “not my neighbor,” so they passed by.

Given the principles on which its work is grounded, LSS naturally is concerned about refugees (these days the largest number of refugees it is dealing with in Minnesota are from Burma), people fleeing countries where their lives are in imminent danger. The U.S. government is concerned, too. And like countless other social service nonprofits, LSS contracts with the federal government, in this instance to manage the complex process by which refugees are resettled.

The accusation that LSS “profits” from this arrangement is ludicrous. LSS receives from the federal government $850 per person and provides 90 days of case management that includes all resettlement services — housing, medical care, schools, employment, green cards, etc. Does anyone believe that $9.44 per day covers staff costs?

Currently, LSS is bringing to St. Cloud 215 primary refugees a year, and only refugees who already have relatives in the area. This doesn’t sound like much of a political or ideological plot; it’s more like a carefully moderated mission-driven response to human need — especially when set against the UN Refugee Agency count of 19.5 million refugees in the world in 2014.

LSS has no control over secondary migration—the arrival here of persons originally settled elsewhere in the country. But the reuniting of families and kin-groups hardly seems un-American.

It’s time for LSS-bashing to stop.

It’s also time for cries of “the dismantling of the culture that built America” (Lysen again) and “de-emphasizing the American culture” (AJ Kern, May 7, 2015) to be mothballed.

Kern thinks it ominous that “assimilation” is no longer the stated goal of government policy regarding immigrants, including refugees. But assimilation presupposes some agreed-on portrayal of what it is people are supposed to get absorbed into. American Indians, blacks, and women have reminded us that America isn’t the white Protestant male preserve they were long expected to adjust to.

Thirty years ago the application form for foster-parenting in Minnesota had a religion category, and there were three choices: “Catholic, Lutheran, Other.” I prefer the diverse Minnesota we have now.

The richness of the St. Cloud area is vividly illustrated by a monument at St. Germain and Sixth. It says, “From many nations we are one community.” And the centerpiece continues: “This monument represents the nations of people that lived, settled, and built the foundation of St. Cloud before 1880.”

At the top are the Dakota and the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe, followed by flags of 15 European nations and Canada.

But that’s not all. “As our city grows, granite markers will be added to this corner representing the lands from where we come.” And spreading out in two directions from the centerpiece are the flags of 42 other countries, from Africa and the Middle East and Asia and Australia and Latin America, and, yes, more from Europe.

That expanding array of flags signals how St. Cloud is ever Greater >!

The Minnesota Miracle thrives, in part because religions are now acknowledged for what they are, not lumped together as “Other.”

America moves forward toward the Constitution’s goal of “a more perfect union” — not uniformity — when we become caretakers of one another’s stories, not insisting that everyone take their seat assigned by a single definition of American culture.