Dumb Okies Like Me: A New Relfection on America's Greatest Migration

Image Credit: USDA
Today, a historical reflection followed by three principles and three prayers.

The "Dust Bowl" environmental conditions of the 1930s -- a period of extreme and prolonged drought and dust storms affecting especially Great Plains states like Oklahoma -- resulted in the displacement of 3.5 million Americans.  This represented the largest internal migration event in the history of the United States.  

As Oklahoma families struggled to survive in the "dirty thirties", word gradually began to spread about a better land far away.  Consider:

California! California! California! To the Okies the word "California" was magical, describing a place where they could go to better their lives. It was said that thousands of workers were needed to harvest a hundred different crops -- peaches, pears, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, apples, oranges -- the list seemed endless. It was said that no one ever went hungry in California because lush orchards were everywhere and people just helped themselves to whatever fruits or vegetables they wanted. It was said that no one ever got sick out there, ever, and it was big news if anyone died in California before their 200th birthday!  -- Jerry Stanley, Children of the Dust Bowl

Of course, the dark reality was that these promises of paradise were empty and migrant families reached California only to find exploitation, hostility, violence, and hatred towards "dumb Okies".  

As I consider again this part of my home state's history -- I don't think I've given it much thought since high school -- I do so with a mind towards modern displacement stories:

1. Displacement happens for all kinds of reasons and there is really no people group or part of the world that is immune. The number of Syrians that have fled their homeland now far exceeds the total number displaced by the Dust Bowl.  As of writing this, the UNHCR has the total at above 4.3 million.  When in the West we hear of displacement events we tend to think of it as a developing world issue.  But, the Dust Bowl was only a few generations ago and included people that were a lot like me -- maybe even some relatives.  Smaller displacements happen all the time.  It is very foolish to think of displacement as something that could never happen to me.  There is an old Dust Bowl tale of a California child who observed some migrants picking cotton in a field and commented to his father, the owner of the field, "Daddy, those Okies almost look like real people when they stand up on two legs."  Dear God, help me to see myself in the face of every refugee I meet -- we really are the same, whether I see it or not.

2. The promise of a better life somewhere else is still proclaimed wherever people are vulnerable.  I have seen so many examples of this.  I knew of Rohingyas that were migrating en masse to a certain Midwestern city because of the promise of jobs only to find the celebrated factory closed upon their arrival.  I've heard Bhutanese friends tell of the great opportunities in Buffalo and then Oakland and then Pittsburg and now Columbus.  I've heard women tell heartbreaking stories of moving from the village to Kampala because of the promise of a job or a place to stay with relatives only to be exploited and forced into sex work.  I have Nepali friends in Dubai who moved there because of the grand promises of job recruiters only to find themselves in oppressive debt to those same recruiters upon arrival.  Sometimes these promises of greener pastures are told by well-meaning relatives who simply long to reunite the family and will bend the truth in order to accomplish that.  Other times there is intentional and malicious deception spread by oppressors who want to exploit and enslave the vulnerable.  The mission of managing expectations and protecting migrants from exploitation is holy, thankless and difficult.  I have not sorted out how to do it well, but I pray that while mine is just one of many voices my migrant friends will hear, let it at least be truthful.

3.  Too often the world's pilgrims find no welcome.  I can begin to imagine now the feelings of my Okie ancestors who encountered "Okies Keep Out" signs posted seemingly everywhere upon completion of the arduous weeks or months-long journey across Route 66.  Now every, single day my newsfeed has several stories of similar unwelcome.  It may be a presidential candidate in the USA pandering to some rather racist group by spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric or any number of horrific stories of hostility towards refugees in Europe.  It seems like every day I see a new image of refugees crowded at some fence line in Europe.  Meanwhile, I celebrate the nation of Uganda which is currently hosting greater than half a million refugees!  On a recent trip I found myself waiting for my flight at the gate in Dubai.  Glancing around the seating area I noticed that many people where holding the distinctive white and blue plastic bags emblazoned with the letters "IOM".  These were refugees!  I decided to make my way around the room to greet them.  I sat down with one husband and wife from Afghanistan who were on their way to Texas.  We talked for a while and before departing I felt the need to tell them the truth.  "Not everyone will be happy for you to come to America," I said.  "But I am happy.  I welcome you.  I am very glad you are coming to live in my country."  Feeling a heart of welcome to refugees and immigrants is grace.  It must be grace because I have some really awful sin in other parts of my life.  So, since it is grace, I give thanks for it and ask God to increase my welcome and my hospitality.  How can I go to greater lengths to welcome the sojourner?  Lord show me. 

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