“You Were Once Strangers”

From the Executive Director
February 5, 2016

exhibit_newmainers 2

photo credit: Maine Historical Society website

Countries around the world are facing the challenge of responding to today’s refugee crisis, including here in the United States, and right here in Maine. As we struggle with our fears, strive for deeper compassion, and seek a wise response that cares for those in need and ensures the safety of all, it is easy to think this is a new phenomenon, easy to forget that immigration is America’s oldest tradition and a foundation upon which our nation and this state were built. Remembering those truths can help calm our fears, strengthen our compassion, and shape our responses to the current chapter of a very long story.

This call to remember appears in our sacred scriptures (in Deuteronomy, “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt”), and is also the theme of a new exhibit opening at the Maine Historical Society tonight: “400 Years of New Mainers.” The exhibit tells personal stories, past and present, of immigration to Maine and includes photographs by Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest, works by street artist Pigeon, and items from the museum’s permanent collection.

For those of us who are not among the newest Mainers, there is value in pausing to remember the time when our own forebears were new, were strangers here. When we do, it becomes easier to see our own stories reflected in the stories of new immigrants and refugees, and to recognize what we have in common. My own family traces its Maine roots back to 1650 when my 9th great-grandfather, James Warren, an indentured servant, landed on the shores of Kittery as one of the Scottish prisoners exiled from England by Oliver Cromwell, sent to work in the saw mills. But rather than emphasize how long we’ve been here (something Mainers love to do!), I believe it is far more important to tell that story with an emphasis on the fact that we were once strangers here, just as today’s New Mainers are.

For those who are New Mainers, seeing photographs and artwork that tell their stories, like the ones in the MHS exhibit, is an empowering experience that affirms the ways in which they are now woven into the fabric of this community, and the ways in which “their” story is now “our” story.

So, whether you are a new arrival, or your people have been here for hundreds of years, make time to visit the Maine Historical Society’s “400 Years of New Mainers” exhibit (open to the public through April 2 at 489 Congress Street in Portland). And find a way to heed God’s call to love the strangers in our midst, remembering we were all once strangers here, too.

Rev. Jane Field
Executive Director