Monday, July 09, 2018
Robert E. Ray, 1928-2018
It may well have been one of the best marketing ploys I'd ever come up with--get former Iowa Governor Robert Ray to come to Sioux City for a book rollout that featured stories about Tai Dam people, the people whose cause he'd championed in the early 70s.
The Tai Dam had made it known that they wanted to come to America as a group, not as individuals. They wanted to live together as strangers in a strange land, and they were serious. If they were going to leave Laos--and they had to--they wanted badly to stay together.
Somehow, the Tai Dam contacted someone from inside the State Department with their request. Their lives were in jeopardy because their homeland had been overtaken by those who they'd opposed during the long war in Southeast Asia.
That State Department official wrote every governor in the country with their request. Only one said yes--Robert Ray, Governor of Iowa, who told the Tai Dam people that Iowans would take them, all of them, just as they wanted.
It was by no means a popular decision. More Iowans than not thought boldly declared they didn't want the Tai Dam or any other refugee people for that matter. Many opposed him and his largesse, and did so publicly.
But Governor Ray went forward for one simple reason--he was convinced, body and soul, that it was the right thing to do. Morally, he determined, we simply could not turn our backs on a people who'd helped us. America could not say no, so he made it clear that Iowa would say yes.
The book we were marketing was Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians, something I'd written with great help from the members of that Tai Dam community and a grant from The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Lily Endowment, Inc. That was thirteen years ago.
It was my idea to get former Governor Robert E. Ray to come from Des Moines for a book opening at Siouxland Unity Church, downtown Sioux City. Like no one else on the face of the earth, Robert Ray had worked to bring the Tai Dam to Iowa. Hundreds--no, thousands--of Iowans had opened their hearts and their homes to the refugees, sponsored them, supported them, kept them in socks and underwear, helped them learn English, found jobs, became their cultural guides through a new world so much unlike anything they'd ever experienced or could have imagined.
Robert Ray was the one who made it possible, and they knew it. They loved him. There the book lay, front and center, but Governor Ray was the story. So much love and admiration filled the sanctuary that it was a blessing simply to be in the room.
Ray talked about a visit he and his wife had made to a Southeast Asian refugee camp where conditions were anything but exemplary. He talked about going into a tent there and discovering, shockingly, an Iowa Department of Transportation map pinned to a wall, that map adorned with red and blue pins to indicate where Tai Dam families and individuals had already been greeted and helped by Iowans.
At first, 600 needed help. That number increased to 6000. Robert Ray never flinched.
At a birthday party for him not long ago, a woman named Som Baccam told the former governor that she'd been 11 years old when she came to this country in the 1970s. She told the crowd who had gathered that "Forever he will be in the Tai Dam people's heart. He is our savior. We have a home now, so we do have a place to call home."
Getting the Rays to come to Siouxland Unity Church may well have been the best marketing ploy I'd ever come up with. If the bottom line had only to do with tallying book sales, we flopped that night. But what I've never forgotten is the palpable presence of love all around in the sanctuary--him for them, them for him, a beloved reunion.
Robert E. Ray, a five-term governor of the State of Iowa, is remembered for many wonderful accomplishments, none so generous, so charitable, so selfless as what he daringly activated for a refugee people who wanted and needed nothing more than a safe home in a new land.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:22 AM