By T.R. Robertson
A plaque hangs inside the Statue of Liberty bearing the words of a poem, “The New Colossus.” Its words are recognized by millions.
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
Mother of Exiles. 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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The poem was written by Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus for and about the Statue of Liberty. Her experiences living among an immigrant people in America gave her a deep compassion for the masses of immigrants from all over the world who were flocking to find liberty in the United States.
She describes the statue as standing in the harbor, waiting patiently for the arrival of exiles. She holds a torch high so they can see their destination as they approach. She dismisses the allure of the ancient lands these weary souls have left behind, lands famous for a glory they no longer have.
She welcomes them, all the while knowing they are a miserable lot, not the cream of the crop, not the rich and famous and beautiful.
The Statue of Liberty, and Emma Lazarus’s poem, have inspired patriotic fervor among Americans for more than a century.
The Light of the World
As a Christian on mission, however, I can’t read those words without thinking about Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18, 19: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As inspiring as the Statue of Liberty is to a people who are grateful for our “sweet land of liberty,” we must ask, “Who lifts a lamp at the golden door to the kingdom of God, welcoming those who have given up on the glittery promises of the world?” Who holds a light high, pointing the way to reconciliation and glory in Christ?
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Christians all over the world love to sing the old Sunday school song, “This Little Light of Mine.” Children sing, “I’m gonna let it shine.” Worship leaders add a back beat and lead their congregations in singing, “Hide it under a bushel, No! I’m gonna let it shine!”
Put to a bluesy rock tune, the ladies in our Monday night chapel service in prison love to sing and shout, “Won’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine!”
A Light in the Darkness
For the prisoners, the world is a very dark place. Many have struggled through life on the dark edges of society, only to find themselves locked away in an even darker place.
It would be easy for them to be overwhelmed by the forces of evil and despair that permeate the prison. Inside the prison walls there is literally no escape from the pervasive influence of the wretched refuse of society.
One woman, who spent more than three decades in prison, said she spent every day just walking forward among the huddled masses like a horse wearing blinders, not looking to the right or left for fear of what she would see or whom she might offend.
And yet, even in a place that trains people to be self-protective, women of faith hold their lamp high.
This same veteran of the prison conducted herself with such dignity and peaceful purpose that younger women were drawn to her, seeking a spiritual mother. She welcomed them all, tired and poor, and answered their questions, offering her wisdom with such humility that she never recognized it as wisdom.
“Over all those years, I just kept telling them they ought to come to the Monday night chapel service. I know that’s what God called me to do. That’s why I’ve been here all this time.”
For Alice, another prison veteran, it was as simple as faithfully attending chapel services, visibly carrying her Bible on her way. Somehow the Holy Spirit was able to use one walking woman and her Bible to prompt other prisoners to ask, “Are you going to church?”
“Yes I am,” she would answer. “Would you like to come with me?”
This simple drama was repeated week after week, year after year. Countless tempest-tossed women fell into step next to her in the prison walkways and discovered what it means finally to be free.
It seemed every one of these women who were drawn to the chapel with Alice were short-timers, due for release in months or weeks. They yearned to be free, but were fearful of what might await them on the streets. They needed encouragement and an anchor to their faith before being tossed back into the tempest.
The Huddled Masses
Prison isn’t the only place where darkness blinds the huddled masses.
A college campus is a melting pot of young people from every avenue of life, immigrants from the varied cultures of their childhood, all pressed together into a restless pressure cooker.
And yet we see young Christian women who eagerly reach out to their uprooted and bewildered schoolmates. Building a relationship over a cappuccino, offering a helping hand with studies, they hold their light high.
We watched one student arrive on campus with a clear goal of what her future was going to hold. But as Megan moved from being “into Christianity” to being committed to Christ, she cast off the plans she had made.
Looking about her for a way to use her abilities and talents to reach the spiritually homeless, she decided to seek a job as a flight attendant.
Now she travels all over the world, meeting people from every nation, building relationships with people from diverse cultures. And she holds her lamp high, so others might be captivated by the Holy Spirit living through her.
Anna came to the university to see where her life would take her. She chose to take a job tending animals for the Home of God’s Love orphanage in Taiwan. Decades later she still has a few animals to look out for, but her days and years are spent doing whatever it takes to help the ministry—caring for children, taking them places. And through it all, her quiet spirit cries out to all around her that Jesus invites the homeless and innocent to come to him.
Mother of Exiles
It can be easy to carve out for ourselves a comfortable Christianized family life in a Christianized church community, to the point where we begin to see our middle class American religious life as our home. We can begin to care more about protecting our American freedom of religion than living like sojourners in this world, on mission for God.
By seeing not only herself but her husband and her children as exiles and sojourners, a mother will tend to her family in a way that steers them toward divine opportunities to let the lamp of God’s liberty shine in the neighborhood, in the schools, and in the world.
The mother who sees her children as pilgrims on a journey for Christ will train and nurture them to seek God’s guidance in their lives, plans, and purposes. Her mild eyes look over not only her own family, but beyond, to the places she and her loved ones can be a light.
Trips to the library become opportunities to build relationships with people who seek knowledge. Play dates in the park provide opportunities to let a little light shine into the lives of other parents and children.
Children who are accustomed to going along with mom or dad to brighten the day of nursing home residents will grow up knowing that “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” is more than just a chorus. It’s a life song.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
Find Your Huddled Masses
People in need of Christ’s welcoming love are all around us. Find a group or individual to whom you can offer compassion. Extend an invitation to church, offer to pray, share a meal, a hug, a card, or simply be present. Be genuine. Be creative. Be persistent.
Here are some ideas to get you started, but don’t look too far. The most powerful ministries are often close to home.
• Men and women in addiction recovery programs
• High school students fighting against adult temptations
• Teachers guiding today’s kids through chaos
• The workers at the convenience store you
• Your neighbor who has more stress and kids than time and energy
• New parents on your block who are sleep
deprived and nervous
• Residents of a local nursing home or retirement community
• Kids in foster care
• Homeless people who must deal with their stress and sins in the public eye
• The wait staff at a restaurant you frequent
• The parents of your child’s friends
• Your child’s friends whose parents are absent
• Families of men and women serving overseas with the armed forces
• The people who work in the same gray, stress-soaked office you do
• The construction workers on assignment near your home or office