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No price tag, just no time


The black-and-white rocking cow sat placid in the back seat, wedged immobile by a shiny red kettle and a stack of plaid wool blankets. I finished packing the trunk and drove to the tiny rented house, crawling with so many roaches a kind exterminator had made three free trips already. The refugee family, a husband and wife and six children, had come from Afghanistan with nothing but a few clothes and photograph albums.

The father, a journalist who’d joined the Communist Party to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, had been held captive, acid splashed on his stomach, arms, legs, face and neck. Tightening scar tissue had replaced his left ear, tugging his head toward his shoulder, and three years of fear and rage had wrung his spirit dry. Finally he’d bought the chance for a harrowing escape, and now he was here, a dazed resident of south St. Louis.

At the first stoplight, I bent to make sure the wrapped Barbie doll was still lodged safely under the passenger seat. “I want a Barbie,” the 8-year-old had come up to whisper at Christmastime, watching her 14-year-old sister unwrap sweaters and earrings and the 3-year-old hug together a stuffed bear, a ragdoll and an oversize duck. Stricken by the uneven distribution of our offerings -- nearly everything for the 8-year-old was practical -- I’d vowed to abandon all feminist principles and enter the pink aisle.

Now, scraping over frozen mounds of ice, I slid to a sudden, angled stop in front of the house. Good enough. Their screen door banged open, and the 14-year-old ran down to greet us. “I miss you,” she announced, looking at me closely. “Why do you come only when you have things to bring? Why do you not ever come just to talk?”

It felt like the dentist’s little mallet making the nerve sing. This was the third refugee family I’d gotten to know, and they’d all been gently puzzled -- and hurt -- by my busyness; the way I swooped in with a carload of stuff, handed it over, gulped a quick obligatory cup of wonderfully strong sweet chai or Bosnian coffee, and began my excuses for departure.

I mumbled an apology and a promise and headed back to the car for another load, making a new set of excuses to myself. There just wasn’t time. Besides, if I sat there fretting and feeling trapped I’d grow to resent their hospitality and dread my visits. And they couldn’t afford the burden of always feeding guests the best food in their larder.

They couldn’t afford it -- yet the abundance of their pantries had begun to seem almost biblical. Always they found nuts and raisins, or grapes and warm flatbread, or chilled cans of Orange Crush they’d gotten by the caseload with their food stamps. Not once did I catch that tense look I would have recognized in a flash, the “Oh no, company, whatever will we give them, how long will they stay?” look. Instead these families pressed their best upon you without hesitation, then waited for everyone to relax and spend hours chatting, sipping, being.

It just wasn’t the American way. Besides, I was terrified what I’d learn if I did stay. The few times I had, I’d realized they needed not mere stuff, but somebody who could work miracles with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and correct IDs that had the two eldest kids flopped, and therefore in the wrong grades, with the eldest unable to work legally because his ID said he was his 14-year-old sister. They needed somebody who could wave a wand and move them up a Section Eight housing list that projected a wait of at least five years. They needed somebody who could convince the government that acid burns and torture and psychosis and a missing ear and twisted muscles and complete upheaval make it hard to land in America and learn the English words for “You want fries with that?”

Unable to work a single one of these miracles, I walked back inside. On the sofa, calmly sipping tea, sat a woman from an evangelical church that had been busy Christianizing the family. This woman did spend time, and so did her fellow parishioners. They picked the kids up for after-school activities, they helped tutor them, they brought Bibles in Farsi, they drove the family to church for all-Sunday marathons, bringing them to see what the eldest boy called “a Jesus movie.”

But their time had a price tag.

“I don’t want to be baptized and give up my name for a Christian name,” the 14-year-old girl had wailed, risking one of the increasingly frequent family fights that branded her a “bad girl” because her father had decided this church was their best hope for salvation.

He wasn’t altogether wrong. By now, the secular resettlement agency that had sponsored the family was pulling back on its services. Besides, the caseworkers and translators for Afghan refugees were all Muslim. Still trembling with rage over his own torture, the father hadn’t found it easy to trust their help. And the only non-Muslim translator he’d found was a convert to evangelical Christianity who eagerly urged him to follow suit.

The church pastor was an earnest and kind man who spoke of the wrath of God, the forces of darkness and the saving of souls, insisting all the while that they wouldn’t dream of being coercive. This, I realized, was all the family knew of Christianity. Where were all the nice reasonable, middling-liberal churches that wouldn’t insist on ideological lockstep? Well, there was St. Pius on Grand Avenue. But the bulk of the “moderate” Christian churches just weren’t involving themselves with St. Louis’ unprecedented influx of refugees.

Maybe fundamentalist certainty and fiery evangelism are the only motivators strong enough to snap us out of our own self-centered routines. Maybe people only give hours of their time if they think they’re saving somebody’s soul.

I lugged in the plush cow and watched the 3-year-old’s face light up. Then I tried to tactfully explain the many ways of interpreting Christianity.

Half a cup of chai later, I was gone.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001