When the Boundaries Chafe

My husband and daughter were just in a community theater production of the musical Ragtime. I had never heard of this musical, but now that I’ve seen it, I can attest that it is one of the most moving musicals I have ever seen. (And both Steven and Madeleine did a fantastic job!) Ragtime is about three groups of people living in New York in 1906: A community of WASP families, a group of African Americans from Harlem, and a group of Jewish Latvian immigrants.  At the beginning of the musical, the three groups are suspicious and judgmental of each other, but by the end of the story, after much bravery and heartbreak, they have come to understand and care for each other.

The music is phenomenal, but one single line in the song “Journey Home” has stuck with me:

And what of the people whose boundaries chafe?

The character who sings that line is Mother, the matron of the white New Rochelle family. Her husband has just left to go on an expedition for a year, and during that year, she will push her boundaries. She will take in a black baby, defend a black woman, start listening to Ragtime music, carry on her husband’s business, befriend a  Jewish immigrant, and question her husband’s controlling ways. Suddenly, the boundaries that have always held her will burst open, and she will find freedom. 

Mother is not the only one in the story whose boundaries chafe. There is a black man bound by the prejudice, racism, and injustice of the white men he encounters, and also by his own anger. There is an immigrant forced into long hours of factory work with meager pay who wonders if he should ever have come to America in the first place. There is a vaudeville dancer bound by her own beauty and the terrors it brings. All of them are longing to break free from the forces that confine them, whether internal or external. 

And what of the people whose boundaries chafe? 

Right now, thousands of young people from Central America are pouring across the border, trying to find freedom in America. Their countries have grown into places that chafe, places of violence ravaged by drug wars, rape, and murder. I cannot imagine parents who would send their children alone on journeys across the border, which means that I have no idea what these parents and children are going through. I have never felt their fear or their utter hopelessness. I have no clue as to the conditions they have to live in. But their determination to give their children a chance for a safe life no matter the cost makes me know that this is not about trespassing or breaking laws. This is about the fact that sending their kids across the border is the ONLY way to protect their kids’ lives.

These children are not illegal immigrants: they are refugees. They are fleeing a broken land, a broken world, a place whose boundaries hurt too much. All they want is freedom. The freedom to exist without being abducted or coerced by drug cartels. The freedom to exist in a place where the police are actually on your side. The freedom to walk on the streets without wondering if you will be killed. We should not be punishing either parents or children for this; we should be giving them asylum and making room in our great nation for them. 

The US, to some extent, has caused the volatile situation going on in some of these countries. My friend Rachel wrote this post about how the US had a hand in the violence happening in Guatemala right now – and it was all because of bananas. Literally. So you would think that we would be more willing to help the victims of wars to which we contributed.

When children are detained at the border, they are interviewed, and unless they convince border patrol that they fear they will be persecuted or trafficked in their home countries, they are sent back. For those who are kept in custody, there is no guarantee that they will get asylum. Judges currently deny 7 out of 10 applications for asylum for people who are in deportation proceedings.

Turning these children away is not the answer. Punishing their parents is not the answer. This is not an immigrant crisis; this is a humanitarian one. These children deserve to grow up in a place that is safe. 

You may think there is little connection between the musical Ragtime and a refugee issue. But the truth is that we all, at some point in our lives, hope to escape boundaries that chafe too much. Those boundaries may be social, economic, political, or religious. Or they may be something much deeper inside of us, quiet forces that are unseen and untold.

Whatever they are, we hope for freedom. We hope for the opportunity to be rid of the chains that hold us too tightly. We hope to be able to navigate our lives into a place of meaning. That is exactly what these children and their parents hope for, too. 



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  1. Sarah says:

    First of all, I love Ragtime. So much. Partial to “Daddy’s Hands” myself. The gal who sang it on Broadway, Audra McDonald, is from my little town and my FIL actually performed with her. Little claim to fame. 🙂

    Second, I’m with you. How any parent cannot see that these parents would only do this if it was their best option, is beyond me.

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