Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name . . .
From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome;
her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
— Emma Lazarus
In the year 1883, Poet Emma Lazarus wrote this sonnet, “The New Colossus,” to raise money for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty would stand. The sonnet ends with the poignant, passionate words that were added to the base of the statue in 1903: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
For me, these words always held deep significance, first of all, because both of my parents emigrated to this country from Greece and secondly, because I worked as an advocate and trauma counselor for victims of human trafficking, both adults and children. My work was not merely a job; it was a calling that took me into emotionally and physically dark places that challenged my theology of good and evil. It opened my eyes to the intrinsic evil of politics, wealth, greed, inhumanity and depravity. As I toiled with broken, traumatized women, men and children, trying to help them change their lives, my own life was changed, transformed really.
Lady Liberty spoke to me in those days. I know she is a mere statue with no human attributes to admire, but she is to me a powerful symbol. The Statue of Liberty has been called “Mother of Exiles.” People who have been exiled for so many different reasons have found inspiration in her, in this inanimate sculpture that comes alive in people who yearn for freedom. Lady Liberty is sculpted from the inspiration of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty with broken shackle and chain at her feet. The Statue of Liberty became an icon of freedom, a symbol of welcome to immigrants, especially immigrants arriving by sea. I remember hearing my grandmother’s many stories of sailing to America, and one of her memories was seeing the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming light.
I’m writing this today as my commemoration of July 4th, a day that represents freedom, yet not for all. For if you ask your African American brother or sister, “What does July 4th mean to you? You will get an answer expressing something like this: “Are you asking me, a descendant of the American slave, what the 4th of July means to me? I answer: It is a day that reveals to me, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which I am a constant victim.”
So I am always uncomfortable “celebrating” the 4th of July with fireworks and cookouts and a proliferation of mini American flags. Instead, I choose to commemorate, not celebrate. So I will acknowledge the day, yet never forget its full meaning, its meaning not just to me, but to my brothers and sisters — descendants of slaves, immigrants fleeing from oppression, victims of human trafficking.
Are you asking me, a descendant of the American slave, what the 4th of July means to me? I answer: it is a day that reveals to me, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which I am a constant victim.
So think of Lady Liberty for a moment. The image of a woman, not a man — a woman who is standing tall and steady, with her torch lifted to offer light to all who need light. She is an image of a woman who represents compassion, invitation, protection, acceptance, freedom. The broken shackles at her feet declare the end of enslavement, cruelty and bondage for all people as she proclaims welcome for the tired, the poor, the ones who yearn to breathe free, the homeless, those tossed by the tempests of their lives. “Send them to me,” she says, “I lift my lamp to light their way!”
In our country, we entertain hard questions in these days, questions about our nation’s borders, about how welcoming we will be, about equality and equity and whether or not black lives really matter. So today I wonder. Will we lock our gates of welcome? Will we turn away persons escaping tyranny, danger and oppression seeking a land of freedom in our homeland? Will we act as if black and brown lives truly matter? Will we act in the spirit of the Lady, the “mother of exiles” who stands in New York Harbor? Or will we pick up the broken chains at her feet, forge them back together and use them to enslave?
These are the questions we should be asking in these days. Of course, political debate continues dissecting our nation’s immigration policies, as always. Politicians do that, often with little thought about the real people, the real families who bring their children to our nation for safety, protection and freedom. Politicians will do what they do as they always have, but I must ask my American compatriots, “What will we do? Will you and I speak in solidarity with the people who seek to live free in our country? I pray that we will show up when it matters and speak from our hearts of compassion, advocating for a nation that will always say, “Give me your tired, your poor.”
Mother of Exiles, may we stand in welcome with you, and in the spirit of our loving God, may we always love the stranger as we love ourselves. Amen.
You shall also love the stranger,
for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.