My earliest recollection of hearing “take a number” was growing up in Mineola on Long Island. It was at dad’s favorite Italian deli – Ardito’s. Those who did not appreciate the finer aroma of Italian cheeses referred to this palace of pasta as the smelly deli. The “take a number” machine was too high for me to reach, so dad pulled the number, gave me the ticket and quizzed me on how to read the number. He engaged me in counting down as we walked among delicacies and an occasional creeping snail that escaped the basket. “How many to go before us, John?” When our number was called I grabbed the gold ring, which in this case was a slice of Genoa salami to be savored as dad was rattling off his wish list to the clerk. We were rewarded for waiting our turn, knowing when our number was called our wishes would be granted.
Caterina Scibilia was #100186130413 and assigned to Line #19 on Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century. (Imagine having that number called?!) It was a long wait. At the end she grabbed her gold ring – entry into the USA. More than 22 million people took a number at Ellis Island through 1954. Many left their homes due to war, drought, famine, persecution and genocide. Coming to America was rarely a situation of going from good to better. These refugees saw the Lady’s torch and were aching to take their number and get in line. The Statue their eyes embraced, originally erected to recognize America’s friendship with France, celebrate democracy and to honor the end of slavery, became known as the “mother of exiles” thanks to a poem written by Emma Lazarus in hopes of welcoming persecuted Russian Jews.
It’s as if Emma Lazarus heard God’s word to the Israelites, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) Perhaps she was channeling Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says when you feed, visit and welcome the “least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40b) How many will we prohibit from taking a number because of how they pray? Whose numbers will be taken away because of our fear? Are we willing to forget the Egypt of our past and the numbers and lines of our heritage? Will we welcome the stranger and live the words with the silent lips of the Lady,
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
Will we lift a lamp beside our door? Will all be welcome (really)?