Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum is a first-class presentation of the honorable service rendered by the people of the city of Oswego, New York. The enclosure was sad, though understandable, but the warm and generous reception by our forebears deserves unqualified praise. How wonderful it would be if we would live up to this example and be a city of refuge for those in similar circumstances today! In a time when we are reimagining our city, it would be good to include this ideal in our vision. Both the wisdom and the compassion of the original Safe Haven should inform our aspirations.
The biblical cities of refuge also inform our thinking. Priests in Israel were part of the judicial system. The Levites, who assisted them, were given six cities of refuge, three to the east of the Jordan River and three to the west for easy access. When someone was suspected of a crime and was pursued by a member of the victim’s family, they could flee to one of these cities for protection. This protection was conditional, however. The priests and Levites would examine the refugee’s case. If the refugee was judged innocent, he could stay and continue to enjoy protection. If he was judged guilty, he would be disciplined accordingly. We also should be careful to act justly in any refuge we offer, seeing to it that the innocent are protected and the guilty are prosecuted. This is critical for the protection of our city, including other refugees. It is not extreme, but reasonable, measured, wise and just.
As with the Bible as a whole, this picture of refuge points us to Jesus who said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” We all need to take refuge in Jesus from the cruel oppressions of temptation, sin and death which He has overcome. In Him, we find rest in righteousness and life which He has accomplished. It is as we take refuge in Him that we are motivated and empowered to give rest to others. Christians and Christian churches should be people and places of refuge for all manner of people who are oppressed by sin and sorrow.
Some time ago, an article from the Albany Times-Union was published in a local paper. This article argued that Roe v. Wade should become the law of New York State. Sadly, this argument succeeded. But if we will be a city of refuge for those fleeing war and persecution, we should also be a city of refuge for those oppressed by an unplanned pregnancy, both mother and child. We must not accept the false choice between the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child. We should welcome and help both equally. We should not help the unborn child to the harm of the mother nor the mother to the harm of the child. We should be a refuge for both together. There are many churches, agencies and individuals in our city who are already providing a refuge and safe haven for women fleeing the oppression of an unplanned pregnancy. Any true city of refuge should include this compassionate care in their vision.
The vision of a city of refuge does not begin with the large enterprises outlined above but with each of us being a refuge for someone. We all have people around us who are oppressed by something and need a refuge. These might include children neglected by their parents, elderly folks neglected by their children, neighbors in legal trouble due to false accusations and many who are overwhelmed by drug addiction. The first thing is to fulfill our own duties so that we don’t create refugees by our neglect. That may very well be as much as we can do. But if we are able to do more, we should take care of someone around us who needs a refuge. If we can do even more than that, we should open our lives to the city, county, state, nation and even world. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
Let us take care of our own, be a refuge for someone and, together, aspire to fulfill the high calling of our own Safe Haven by becoming a true city of refuge.
Kit Swartz Ruling Elder, RPC Fulton, NY Teaching Elder (Emeritus) Oswego, NY