by Dr. Ria Baker

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the impressive international athletes have been refreshing to watch on television, especially after being inundated for months with a flood of negative political messages and numerous reports of tragic losses of lives in the U.S. and around the globe. The heroes competing in the Rio Games reminded me of the beauty, strength, courage, and gentleness of the human soul, as the medal winners and their loved ones embraced and wept tears of joy and as those missing the mark by a few hundredths of a second or those injured found compassion and support from their fellow competitors. The Games reminded me of the importance of welcoming and respecting all cultures and peoples and of simply, but profoundly, being human.920x920 Refugee team in Rio

Houston Public Media recently reported the city of Houston to be positioning itself to be one of the most welcoming cities in the U.S. It is already one of the most diverse cities in our nation, with people from every corner of the globe. Houston annually receives thousands of voluntary and involuntary immigrants who make their homes here and contribute significantly to the progress of this city. The voluntary immigrants consist of citizens moving from other states seeking employment, international students, and international professionals who are engaged in the various industries. The involuntary immigrants consist of persons who have fled natural or human-made disasters and have found their homes in the Houston area. Currently, Houston accepts more refugees than any other city in the U.S. This is significant especially at this time in history as the number of persons displaced around the world has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, there are currently 65 million people internally or externally displaced from their homes or countries to which they cannot safely return. They are longing for the kindness of their fellow human beings, and people, cities, and communities are challenged to be hospitable. I am grateful to be in a city that is positioning itself to become more and more welcoming to the “stranger.”

Christians are called to be a welcoming people. We need not go far into the gospels to be reminded of the welcoming spirit of Jesus Christ. Jesus, born into a  refugee life as his parents fled Bethlehem to Egypt, welcomed the sick and those with life-long illnesses; those with demon-possession or perhaps brain disorders; those with disabilities and the homeless; those mourning the loss of loved ones; and the “harassed and helpless” men and women. Jesus forgave those who had committed crimes and loved the unlovable. He welcomed the culturally and ethnically diverse, and clearly exemplified for his followers what it means to be human. An accepting and welcoming people.

I recall my initial apprehension about Houston Graduate School of Theology (HGST) which prides itself on being a learning community that welcomes diversity in faith traditions, ethnicity, culture, gender, socioeconomic status, and the like. My impression of religious learning institutions prior to joining HGST was that they tended to be exclusive or sectarian in nature. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the sincerely welcoming nature of this graduate school.  After 4 years of teaching here, I still marvel at how faculty and staff set the tone for welcoming a diverse student body and how students thrive by their experiences here, as they engage with individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences in an accepting and accommodating environment. Students leave their time at HGST changed: more welcoming and more human.

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Dr. Ria E. Baker is an Associate Professor of Counselor Education at HGST where she has served since 2012. She is also the founder of Center for Refugee Services, San Antonio, and a volunteer at the Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston Refugee Services.

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