“Coming Over on the Boat” We have almost no stories-actually NO stories-about my Irish ancestors. All we know is they came over and settled in Eastern Pennsylvania “during the potato famine”, though no one is quite sure which potato famine. I can’t even tell you where they were from in Ireland. On Judy’s side of the family we know that her great-grandmother came from a small Irish village called Trillick because Judy carried her prayer book in our wedding, inscribed in her hand. My brother-in-law made the journey to Trillick and found the same house which appears in an old family photo from the time. But on my side, it seems the Blacks and Alexanders settled in with the Harnishes and by the time I came along, all we knew was we were just good old white protestant Americans from Clarion, Pa, as if none of that history really mattered. Where I came from, no one ever talked about being Irish-Americans or German-Americans back then. We just were. Today St. Patrick’s Day has become the day when everyone is Irish, even if it is just for the green beer. But back when my ancestors arrived that was not the case. As we all know, the Irish weren’t particularly welcome when they showed up on these shores. The folks who were already here didn’t like having the Irish flood the slums of our Eastern seaboard cities even though they themselves had “come over on the boat” from England or Germany or somewhere else in Europe not all that long before. And my guess is that even in rural Eastern Pennsylvania, they weren’t necessarily welcomed with open arms. Fortunately, they somehow got along with the Pennsylvania Dutch (they were really “Deutsche”, that is German), they married up and here I am. The Bible has a lot to say about welcoming the strangers, the immigrants, the foreigners in the midst. Even though the Jews were God’s chosen people, they were called to include others in their community and Jesus made a point of welcoming the outsider. St. Paul says that “in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for we are all one in Christ.” And in the end, John the Revelator envisions a time when we will all be gathered from every tribe and every tongue and every nation around the heavenly throne. Between now and then, the church is called to be that community of grace where all can find a home. St. Paul says “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called the uncircumcised-remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace. In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two, thus making peace. So you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:11-22) Until that day, we need to remember we all came over on the boat and we need to be about the business of welcoming the stranger and creating one new humanity. That’s the miracle that is America-e pluribus unim, one out of many. And that is the call of the Gospel for the church.
Jack Harnish (with a wee bit ‘o Alexander!), Author