Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, Co Wexford
Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, Co Wexford, 7.30 p.m., 9 September 2009:
Ruth 1: 11-17; Hebrews 13: 1-3.
May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Earlier this summer, I attended with great pleasure and great joy one of the Leonard Cohen concerts in the O2 in Dublin. The concert ended, as all of his concerts now end, with his own poetic version of those haunting words from the Biblical story of Ruth:
Whither thou goest I will go
Whither thou lodgest I will lodge
Thy people shall be,
Whither thou goest I will go
Whither thou lodgest I will lodge
Thy people shall be,
Whither thou goest I will go...
Whither thou goest I will go...
And he sometimes repeats that refrain three or four times at the end of a concert. As a Canadian Jewish poet who spent many of his creative years working in Greece, Leonard Cohen knows what it is to be an exile, and to be part of a minority.
But these are words that are also worth repeating, over and over again, as we think about and apply the relevance of the Biblical story of Ruth.
Ruth was marginalised in every sense of the word: a woman from across the boundaries, left to forage for food in the margins of fields at harvest time.
Consider this: if Ruth had never followed Naomi into exile in Bethlehem, if she had never become a stranger in a strange land, if she had never been reduced to begging, if she had not been reduced to gathering up the bits and pieces that had been left behind in the corners of the fields by the reapers, she would never have met Boaz in the fields of Bethlehem.
Instead, the widowed Boaz might have found a nice young second wife among the women of Bethlehem, and had a nice traditional family. His children would have had no question marks hanging over their ethnic and religious identity. And they would have had no child called Obed, no grandchild called Jesse.
“Whither thou goest…”
How many of us love having a Jesse tree in our churches in the weeks before Christmas? Without the Jesse tree, without the root of Jesse, there would have been no David and no Psalms, no Solomon and no Temple, and what a different story the arrival of the Christ-child would have been.
The Jewish faith is traditionally inherited, passed on, through the mother to the next generation of children. But Ruth was no traditional mother, no first choice when it came to finding an ideal mother to pass on the faith to the children.
Yet, her story tells us that when we welcome the stranger among us, when we see those who are persecuted and who are refugees, not just as potential beneficiaries of our compassion, but see them as truly human, with their own integrity and dignity, then we are open to what they have to say, open to any real message they bring us.
And that is the literal meaning of the word angel in the Bible, a messenger who brings good news, the good news of God.
Welcoming strangers means not just seeing them or feeding them, but listening to them too. And as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, when we welcome strangers, we are entertaining angels.
This passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews recalls the story in the Book Genesis where the ageing Abraham and Sarah welcomed and fed three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre. As they entertain and feed these strangers, they realise that they are in the company of angels, three angels that they eventually know as the Lord (Genesis 18: 1-15).
The Russian icon writer, Andrei Rublev, in his famous icon, The Hospitality of Abraham, succinctly illustrates how this is an early manifestation of the presence of the Holy Trinity among us.
As Abraham and Sarah discovered, when we entertain strangers and angels, we realise God’s presence among us.
Indeed, because Boaz welcomed the stranger Ruth completely, to the point of falling in love with her and marrying her, God eventually became present among us in the Incarnation of Christ, at the first Christmas.
This evening, we are remembering the welcome first given 300 years ago to a group of Ruths among us, the Palatine refugees who were Lutherans who fled persecution in Germany and first found refuge and food in the fields of south Co Wexford in 1709.
I suppose Queen Anne played the role of being their Naomi. She saw their plight, and wherever she was willing to have them go, there they were willing to go too.
“Whither thou goest ….”
They were the second wave of continental religious refugees to arrive in our midst within less than half a century. Before them, the Huguenots had been forced to flee France, and settled in large numbers in Ireland. Their cultural differences were accepted and respected, with French-speaking congregations adapting the Book of Common Prayer and the Liturgy of the Church of Ireland to their own use and customs.
After the Huguenots, the German-speaking Lutherans from the Palatinate were the second wave of Continental Protestant refugees to arrive in Ireland.
It is worth recalling that in May 1709, thousands of people living in the countryside in Hesse and Baden, near Mannheim, were forced off their lands during the European conflicts and wars that year. To make matters worse, their plight was compounded by coming after the sufferings and hungers brought about by a particularly harsh winter.
It was not their choice to leave. They were fleeing persecution, and they needed to rebuild their lives. And these refugees trekked for days across land to the port of Rotterdam. There some of them found their way directly to the New World. But over 13,000 refugees were taken on board English ships and were brought to London, men, women and children.
“Whither thou goest …”
It is a story that brings to mind so many conflicts in Europe to this day, where people continue to suffer in wars and conflicts because of ethnic-based definitions of nationhood that deny our shared humanity and that refuse to respect the religious beliefs of others.
England was ill-prepared to receive these refugees. Queen Anne offered land and opportunities in New York and Carolina to almost 3,000 Palatines. In addition, between September 1709 and January 1710, over 800 families – more than 6,000 people – were sent to Ireland.
Initially, there was some difficulty in placing the Palatines on appropriate land or in finding them a hospitable and welcome place to settle. Over 300 families soon abandoned their new small holdings, many returning to England, or even to Germany, despite the dangers they faced back home.
However, some of the settlements were highly successful. One notably successful settlement of Palatine families was here in south Co Wexford, due to the humane intervention of Abel Ram.
The writer Martin Doyle – who in real life was the Revd William Hickey, Church of Ireland Rector of Mulrankin – tells how a lost group of Germans were shipwrecked off the Arklow coast, but were rescued by the benevolent Abel Ram, who handed over almost 2,000 acres to a new settlement in this area and gave 40 acres to each family.
In other Palatine settlements, the refugees found conditions too harsh or landlords too demanding. But it is to Abel Ram’s credit that all the families who settled in the Old Ross area remained here, and in 1716 he was named as one of the Palatine Commissioners. Within a generation or two, we find Robert Morris, a descendant of Palatine refugees, writing to his uncle:
“Happy, very happy would it be for the whole human race if all men of independence and influence were to set such worthy examples of equity and justice...”
Other success stories included the settlement of these refugees on the Southwell estate around Rathkeale, Co Limerick. There, 150 German-speaking Lutheran families were welcomed. Within a short time they were engaged profitably in the production of hemp and flax and in cattle farming.
The Palatines maintained their distinctive way of life in these areas well into the 19th century. Like the children of Ruth, their descendants were fully integrated, as we can see when we find surnames such as Hempenstall, Switzer, Ruttle, Hartrick and Fitzell in every walk of life today.
But we can be a little too comfortable about how successfully the Palatines were integrated into the life of the Church of Ireland and into life in Ireland generally.
These German-speaking Lutherans soon adapted the English language and the styles of worship of the Church of Ireland. But if they were so successfully integrated into the life of my own Church, why did so many of them find an even warmer welcome in Methodism?
In Co Limerick, the Palatine families in Rathkeale, Castlematrix, Ballingrane and Killeheen became Methodists in large numbers. The Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church, built in Ballingrane in 1766, is a testimony to that exodus from the Church of Ireland. The church is a memorial to Philip Embury and Barbara Heck, two Palatine cousins from Co Limerick who introduced Methodism to America in 1766.
Within a generation in Co Wexford, the Palatines of the Old Ross area suffered disproportionately in the events of 1798.
I was honoured in 1998 when I was asked to unveil the memorial stone in this churchyard to the victims of the Scullabogue Massacre. As I read out the names of the victims that evening, I was struck by how many of them had Palatine family names, and the fact that the only two to escape the flames in the barn were Richard Grandy and Loftus Frizzel, one if not both of Palatine descent.
If we allow ourselves to be self-congratulatory on the integration of those early refugees into our churches and our society, then let us do so with an air of realism … and with a good measure of caution too.
How are the Palatines who sought refuge in the Old Ross area different from the Muslims who fled Bosnia and the Serbs who fled Kosovo in the last two or three decades? Nation-state nationalism in Europe still asserts that those who can and cannot stay at home do so if they worship in one particular way, if they speak one particular language.
Within the last two weeks, I have been visiting cities, towns, villages and farms in Western Anatolia where people were forced to leave homes their families had lived in – sometimes for thousands of years – because they spoke Greek rather than Turkish, because they were Christian rather than Muslim.
In 1922, thousands and thousands of these people stood helplessly on the dockside in Smyrna as their homes and the city were burned mercilessly. Those who were brave enough jumped into the Aegean waters hoping to swim to the allied ships docked in the harbour.
And to silence the screams of those who were drowning and who were being butchered, the ships’ officers ordered the bands on the decks to play and to turn their backs and to play more loudly.
It was one of the early examples of genocide in 20th century Europe. And because the bands played on, because we turned our backs on the plight of religious and ethnic refugees, “ethnic cleansing” – no, ethnic massacre – became an instrument of social and political policies in Europe. Within two decades six million Jews and countless numbers of Gypsies were slaughtered across Continental Europe.
It has happened, and it continues to happen again and again in Europe … in Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo … and throughout the world … in Rwanda, Burundi and Darfur.
If we want to take pride in the Palatines who settled among us 300 years ago and the welcome they received, then we must commit ourselves anew to the ideal, the achievable ideal, that no-one in Europe ever again should be a refugee for religious, ethnic, linguistic or social reasons.
At the height of the 1798 commemorations, there was an insidious campaign in this area against Romanian and Roma arrivals from Central and Eastern Europe.
Today, most of the strangers in our midst are gleaning and garnering in the corners of the fields for the poor wages they earn. They suffer disproportionately when it comes to industrial accidents and poor wages.
Statistics show they are more likely than Irish-born residents to be the victims of violent crime, including murder, to end up in prison, to be the victims of racism, to be killed in road traffic accidents, and to be the victims of workplace accidents, including fatal accidents.
And those same statistics show that a disproportionate number of the children admitted to our hospitals are the children of asylum seekers.
I am not going to dare suggest how anyone should vote in the Lisbon referendum. But I am already worried about the type of nationalism and exclusivism that has found voice in the referendum campaign.
And I am worried too that as unemployment continues to rise in Ireland, more and more of the blame for unemployment will be placed on the new immigrants and arrivals, on the stranger in our midst, rather than on our political and economic decision-makers who have created the mess we are in today.
If we want to take pride in the Palatines who settled among us 300 years ago, then the best way to express pride in them and the welcome they received is to ensure that the Poles and the Romanians, the Chinese and the Roma, the families from the Baltic and Nigeria, the new people who have arrived among us, whether it is for social, religious or political reasons, do not become victims, are not discriminated against.
In his book, Faith in the Future, the British Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, says: “The Hebrew Bible contains the great command, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19: 18), and this has often been taken as the basis of biblical morality.. But it is not: it is only part of it. The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbour, but in 37 places it commands us to love the stranger. Our neighbour is one we love because he is like ourselves. The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves.”
Jesus says that in welcoming the stranger , we welcome Christ himself: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me …truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did to me” (Matthew 25: 42-45).
For when we welcome strangers we find we are entertaining angels. And when we entertain angels, then God makes himself present among us.
And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. He is the author of Embracing Difference and a contributor to China and the Irish. This sermon was preached in Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, Co Wexford, on Wednesday 9 September 2009, at a special service to mark the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the first Palatine refugees in Ireland.