by Nick Armstrong
On an early mid-August morning, my wife and I began our day-long journey to Sandpoint, Idaho to conduct a training for people who were interested in learning more about the current refugee crisis and the “refugee highway” (the journey of those who have been forced from their homes and communities due to persecution, often in the context of conflict and war). Two amazing leaders of a Christian fellowship in Sandpoint had attended one of our trainings in Boise a few months earlier and invited us to do a similar training in Sandpoint. We were excited for the opportunity and pleased that there were people genuinely interested in learning about some of the most vulnerable people on earth, people who unintentionally force us to face the powerful words of someone who was a refugee as child – Jesus – who said, “in as much as you have welcomed the stranger, you have welcomed me.” We were expecting about 20-30 people to be there, but we came with 40 training handbooks just to be safe.
Put simply, with a small twist of hyperbole, when we arrived in Sandpoint we were ambushed. When we drove up to the Sandpoint Community Hall, where the training was to be held, there were people holding signs of protest. Did we get the wrong address? Surely people hadn’t gathered to protest our humble training. Some of the signs were obvious messages against refugee resettlement; others were less clear, such as the one that said, “Follow the Money.” Follow whose money? We were confused.
By the time the training started there were 170 people in the room along with the Fire Marshall and three police officers in bulletproof vests. 170 was the maximum number of people allowed in the building according to the fire code, and the Fire Marshall was there to ensure compliance. According to the event organizers, there were at least 30 people outside who were not allowed to come in. Inside the room, only about 15 of the 170 people were there for the training and genuinely wanted to learn; the rest were there in protest. At least that’s what we concluded when halfway through the training someone stood up and shouted, “Who here is against refugees?” and everyone but about 15 people stood up.
The shouts of disapproval at our presence in Sandpoint began even before the training got started, though. Laura began by introducing herself in Indonesian and having the audience practice so as to get a small taste of what it might feel like to come to America knowing little or no English. She was shouted down from the beginning by someone yelling, “speak American!” It may seem hard to believe, but it was downhill from there. When I pointed out that Jesus became a refugee, a man who identified himself as a local pastor shouted back, “No he wasn’t! Jesus’s family went to Bethlehem for a census!” My explanation that Jesus’s family fled to Egypt because of Herod’s tyrannical rule was likely unheard over the other shouts that followed. Further comments about Laura and I receiving secret funding from George Soros and being part of a government conspiracy to force refugee resettlement in Sandpoint only confirmed the fact that things were not going well. It went this way for an hour until the disruptions became so unruly that we had to stop.
We had stepped into an ideological echo chamber that was deafening and threatening, and the possibility for constructive conversation was nil. When one man claimed that all refugees are Muslim, I tried to correct his statement with the facts (in the last 10 years 30% of refugees resettled in the US are Muslim and 70% are non-Muslim two thirds of that 70% identifying themselves as Christians), but I was once again shouted down and called a “liar.”
Both Laura and I were saddened by the fear and hatred reflected in the comments. If only this crowd could meet some of our refugee and Muslim friends, maybe they would see them as real people and not as enemies. Still, as hard as this experience was, Laura and I had people come up to us afterward to give us hugs and tell us they were sorry for how we were treated.
Despite the confrontation, this experience also prompted the leadership of our local church in Boise to reaffirm our commitment as a church to stand up against hatred and prejudice. One of our Elders read the beautiful statement the Sunday after our experience in Sandpoint. Yet another reminder that God makes beautiful things out of dust and that peacemaking in the way of Jesus can transform hate into love.