Living Stones Series: First Published in All Around Old Bridge Publication – March 2017
By Pastor Lloyd Pulley
In 1942, the Nazis forced hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews into a 16-block area that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Sealed off from the rest of the city and unable to purchase adequate food and medicine, nearly 5,000 Polish Jews died each month in that ghetto.
Watching thousands of children starve or die of illnesses like typhoid, Irena Sendler, a young Polish Social Worker, began to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and relocate them to households, orphanages, and convents elsewhere in Poland. She smuggled children in gunnysacks, body bags, in the bottoms of crates of goods, potato sacks, and even coffins. Once, Sendler even hid a small baby in the bottom of a mechanic’s toolbox.
With the help of the local church and several associates, Sendler brought children in through the front door the church, which opened in the Warsaw Ghetto, and smuggled them out through the back door, which opened on the “Aryan side” of Warsaw. She provided each child with a new temporary identity. In a jar hidden under a tree in a neighbor’s backyard, Sendler kept meticulous records of the children’s names, their families, and where they were sent, in the desperate hope that the children would be reunited with their parents after the war. Sadly, that day never came, as many of the children’s parents perished in the ghetto or in Treblinka and other concentration camps.
The Nazis soon began to suspect Sendler, and on October 20, 1943, the Gestapo arrested, imprisoned, and tortured her. Officers broke both of her legs and feet, demanding she give up the names of her associates and the children she had smuggled. Sendler alone knew the location of that jar, and despite the torture that crippled her for life, she refused to surrender the names. As a result, she was sentenced to death, but her execution was halted last minute when someone bribed a Gestapo agent. She later escaped from prison, but was pursued relentlessly by the Nazis until the war ended in 1945.
At the end of the war, Sendler dug up that jar. She had saved a total of 2,500 children. An entire generation was rescued because one young woman took an incredible risk, facing torture and death, to do what is right.
It wasn’t until decades later that her story came to light, and she was honored with various prestigious awards, including the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest distinction. When a local newspaper ran her photograph, she began receiving countless calls from adults who were once the children she rescued. Through tears, one after the other thanked her for saving their lives, their future families’ lives, and the future of all Jewish Poles. To that, she later said, “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.”
How is it that a woman who endured torture to save 2,500 children from the Nazis did not consider herself a hero? Because she understood that watching out for one’s fellow man is a basic tenant of humanity. She saw the plight of Warsaw Jews as her own. She understood that, in many respects, she was her brother’s keeper.
Sendler’s account raises an important question. Faced with similar circumstances today, would we do the same? Would we risk our own comfort and security in order to rescue others? Or would fear motivate us to mind our own business? After all, someone else can see to it, right?
Sendler’s account challenges me personally not only on the subject of fear, but also on the true meaning of hospitality. So often, we consider hospitality as a picture of a beautifully decorated home, with a stunning table set up for a magnificent meal, and a well-dressed hostess heeding the voice of Martha Stewart on perfect linen colors and accent choices. But surprisingly, true hospitality looks a lot more like Sendler’s work in the Warsaw Ghetto than a Better Homes and Gardens article.
For generations, faith-based institutions, like churches, have showed this type of true, compassionate, self-sacrificing hospitality. In fact, in the legendary account of the Good Samaritan, Jesus describes how one outcast, a man from Samaria, provides for the physical needs of a stranger who had been badly wounded, even when the religious leaders of his day had passed him by. Heeding the lessons of the Good Samaritan, churches throughout history have cared for the sick, launching hospitals we know well, including Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City or St. Peter’s in New Brunswick. Sendler herself depended on churches to extend this same hospitality to those escaping the Warsaw Ghetto. She recounted, “I sent most of the children to religious establishments… No one ever refused to take a child from me.”
In fact, the fundamental difference between faith communities and governments may lie at the heart of the current controversy over America’s handling of refugees. While the government’s main role is to govern and protect, people of faith want to extend compassion and care to all people, including those who come from countries that have threatened America. So while the President’s administration and the courts battle it all out, and opinions flare, our community can rise up now and meet the needs of refugees fleeing Syria and other war torn nations. We can minister to refugees who are already here in the U.S., and those living scattered abroad.
In our own church, we have seen groups rise up to do exactly that. Our Training Children to Care (TCTC) ministry, which is comprised of families serving together throughout the community and even the world, began wondering what they could do to help families living in refugee camps abroad. They learned that in some of these camps, rape is a growing problem, so TCTC families bought flashlights and whistles that refugee children can use to sound alarms when in danger. These items were packed by kids, for kids, half a world away. One of our outreach teams hand delivered these packages to refugees in Jordan just last month.
While governments of course provide essential services, non-governmental organizations, like churches, are uniquely positioned to serve in ways governments cannot. Former White House Special Assistant Jedd Medefind puts it this way, “Complex human problems cannot be resolved apart from human relationship. That is why the things that most often prove decisive in elevating a life are things government cannot provide. Belonging. Accountability. Purpose and hope. Truth-telling paired with support. Knowing you’re loved. In short, care rooted in relationship. Government can’t deliver this. Local charities and faith-based nonprofits often can… they offer the relationship and other intangibles decisive in bettering a life for the long haul.”
When faith communities offer that care rooted in relationship, something incredible happens, not unlike what transpired with Sendler and others like her. As we welcome the stranger among us and meet his/her needs, we begin to forget about ourselves, our own complaints, and even our fears. This is the incredible by-product of hospitality and service! You find yourself infinitely happier when you meet the needs of others.
When we offer genuine hospitality to refugees, to the sick, to anyone who is hurting, which is fundamentally everyone, we find that we ourselves begin to change. And that, in fact, may be the greatest work of all.