By Ben Shedlock
There is a feeling at the high point of a rollercoaster, after you have been pulled up by slow mechanical effort but before you enter free fall, when you are suspended. For me, the feeling prompts a tightening of the gut and a clenching of the jaw. It is a casting about for control of the uncontrollable.
This morning, after months of fundraising dollar by dollar, of training mile by mile, I waited with belly and jaw stiff in the World Relief Spokane parking lot for the caravan to leave for Seattle.
Before departure, once we had fully packed the bike trailer and cars, the dozen-or-so Spokane riders gathered for a group photo. The staff of World Relief came down from their office to cheer for us and say thank you. It was a warm farewell and handoff.
After a quick, clear and uneventful drive across Washington, we were received just as warmly by the staff of World Relief Seattle in Kent. The resettlement director at the Seattle office, Caitlin, gave our group a tour. It would have been familiar to anyone who has visited the Spokane office — an open floor plan with messy desks crammed into too-small spaces by multitasking, multilingual staff. The fundamental programs were the same: teams to receive refugees in their first few weeks, teams to house and employ them and teams to assist with ESL and immigration legal concerns.
But the office was shaped by its local context. Portraits of asylees from that office hung on the wall, a project of Buzzfeed in the aftermath of the 2016 election. An entire resiliency program has sprung up around a church’s donation of a parking lot, which is now used for raised-bed gardening.
Several staff members manage programs to provide spiritual and case management services for those held and released from the Tacoma Detention Center, the fourth largest in the nation for immigrants awaiting hearings. On days when immigrants are released, World Relief staff receive them at an RV on the grounds. They provide snacks, a phone to call family and help planning the immigrants’ next moves. Like the refugee airport arrivals many volunteers are familiar with, the mood runs the gamut from ecstatic to confused to exhausted.
I realized at the end of the tour I had begun to feel as tired and confused as those recently arrived and released migrants. I had just completed a journey, lacked any sense of my surroundings and had no idea when I would eat or where I would sleep next.
All the riders had the option of paying for a hotel or doing a homestay with a staff member; I chose the homestay that was cheaper but less logistically clear. As we wrapped up the tour, Caitlin asked if Ben was there — I said I was. She told me I would be going home with her that evening.
I thought of the scores of refugees I picked up at the airport when I was a caseworker. Like them, I took the leap of faith to go with this woman, get in her car and drive to her house. Like them, I placed my minimal luggage in the back of her car. I trusted she would get me where I needed to go and had thought to feed me and get a bed ready for me. I felt completely dependent, and it was probably OK, but who knows?
As the night unfolded, I entered the beauty that is the small miracle of hospitality. Caitlin and I compared experiences working in refugee resettlement. Her roommate was sitting on the couch, playing a small, deep-bellied guitar-like instrument from the Middle East called an ’oud. It kindled discussions of our travels and our mutual love of Muslim architecture and Arab food.
Then Caitlin’s husband came home, and over a home-cooked taco meal, we all bonded over talk of our jobs and our homes and our families, the small human details that bind even the people who are most distant and different. I asked the most basic questions about this unfamiliar city I don’t know very well. Who lives here? What is it like to go to work here? Do you like it here?
As a Catholic, the social principles of my faith call me to stand in solidarity with my “one human family,” and the Gospels call me to love my neighbor. Part of the Sea-Tri-Kan bike ride is to glean insights about refugees’ experiences, to find a window into their suffering and their resilience. As a result of this safely planned ride, I will not understand what it is to be a refugee; however, I hope to discover more empathy for the refugee experience.
Over dinner, I realized that my houseguest experience reflected the experiences so many refugees have had sitting at my table on their first nights in my town. As we eat, we lead each other down the pathway that exits awkward silence. One of us trusts, and the other earns trust. One of us asks, and the other answers. One of us jokes, and the other laughs.
Through these small connections with their hosts, both cyclist and refugee orient themselves to their surroundings, relaxing their bellies through food and jaws through laughter, and start to reassert control over their journeys.
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Ben Shedlock is the communications coordinator for Catholic Charities Eastern Washington. Before working as a writer, he served Catholic Charities as a refugee resettlement caseworker. Ben’s career has emphasized Catholic Social Teaching’s themes of solidarity and an option for the poor. He is a member of St. Ann’s Catholic Church. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.