He may be one of the greatest heroes of World War II that nobody has heard of.
His name was Chiune Sugihara.
He was a cultural diplomat in Lithuania in the 1940s. When the Nazis began rounding up Jews, Mr. Sugihara took it upon himself to do something extraordinary. He began issuing fake travel visas. First for just a few, then for dozens, then for hundreds. He’d spend up to 18 hours a day writing them out by hand. His wife also helped — by some accounts, it was her idea in the first place. Her husband used his title and influence to make it happen.
Mr. Sugihara didn’t simply grant visas — he granted visas against direct orders, after attempting three times to receive permission from the Japanese Foreign Ministry and being turned down each time. This went on for years — quietly, secretly, always at risk of being caught and punished.
After the war, the Sugiharas returned to Japan. To support his family, Mr. Sugihara took a series of menial jobs — at one point, selling lightbulbs door to door. To those in the neighborhood, he was just the quiet, unassuming man down the block.
But history eventually found him. The world had forgotten him. But those he saved did not. They searched for him. Historians began talking with him. In the late 1960s, they began putting together the pieces of his life.
What they discovered was staggering.
It is estimated that Chiune Sugihara saved more than 6,000 lives.
Today, it is believed that descendants of those rescued number close to 10,000, scattered around the world.
In 1984, he was recognized as “Righteous Among Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. When he died in 1986, a large Jewish delegation, including diplomats and dignitaries, descended on his neighborhood for the funeral. His neighbors were stunned. They had no idea what he had done.
Today there is a memorial to him in Los Angeles, in Little Tokyo, with these words from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world.”
This morning, we heard this timeless teaching: “You shall not molest or oppress the alien.” And then in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard Jesus echo it and then underscore it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In Luke’s account of this event, someone then wants to know more, and asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” He replies with the great parable of The Good Samaritan. Jesus makes this point: everyone is my neighbor. Even the one from another region, another religion, another belief. We are accountable to one another.
And yet, here we are. So little has changed in 2,000 years. We live in a world where too many of us see our neighbors as aliens — and forget that those who are not like us are beloved children of God.
Chiune Sugihara understood that. He lived that. He risked his life for that.
Too many of us can’t even come close.
It is no secret that we as a country have often treated aliens, those from other countries, with indifference, scorn, hatred or bigotry. Some of them were our grandparents or great-grandparents. They have been punished, imprisoned, caged, shackled.
And it is not just those from other lands.
As Catholic Christians, we need to hear this Gospel with an understanding that there are many kinds of aliens — people who are seen as different from us.
Especially now, during these polarized times — at the conclusion of Respect Life Month, and with an election just days away — it’s worth asking ourselves:
How do we respect the lives of those who are different from us?
Do we love those neighbors? How about those who have a different religion or values system or political affiliation from our own?
How do we engage with the neighbor who has a Trump-Pence sign on his lawn?
How do we talk to the uncle who wears a Biden button?
Do we even think of loving them at all? Or do we find them, frankly, unlovable?
Do we treat them as worthy of respect or human dignity?
How do we engage with them online, on social media?
Too often, I fear, many of us decide we just don’t want anything to do with them.
But the words of today’s Gospel stand before us as indictment and a challenge: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is the second greatest commandment. And so often, it is the one most easily broken.
One of the reasons this commandment matters so much is that it is so closely tied to the first commandment, love of God. To love our neighbor is to express — in a tangible way — our love for God, the God who created each of us in his own image and likeness and loves even the neighbor we can’t abide.
Whether we realize it or not, he loves us. All of us. No matter what we believe or where we live or how we vote. God’s love transcends all of that and more. He sees beyond our weakness, our sinfulness, our humanness.
How could we do anything less than love this God with all our hearts, our souls, our minds?
The fact is: We are called to love as he loves.
To see every soul as a child of God — to see them, as Chiune Sugihara did, as someone worth saving. Even at tremendous risk.
Near the end of his life, Chiune Sugihara was asked why he did what he did.
“Well,” he replied, “it is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives… The spirit of humanity, philanthropy… neighborly friendship… with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation – and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
With this scripture before us, as we prepare to receive the Eucharist this morning, let us reach out our hands to receive Christ with gratitude — and set out into the world with “redoubled courage.”
Courage to see beyond boundaries.
Courage to see beyond differences.
Courage to see one another as God does.
With compassion. With wonder.
And with love.
I want to leave you with part of a prayer composed by Pope Francis, from his new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti”:
Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty,
reflected in all the peoples of the earth,
so that we may discover anew
that all are important and all are necessary,
different faces of the one humanity
that God so loves. Amen.
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