As a Wesleyan and as an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene and as an individual working with refugees, I find myself watching current events in the US from abroad with deep concern. With special interest to me are the new Presidential orders to restrict entry into the US of people from Muslim Majority countries. My booming facebook and twitter accounts evidence the liklihood that the next days and weeks are bound to be tense in our sanctuaries, in the marketplace, on social media, and in our homes. May God give all of us wisdom, grace, and charity for the Other.
As fighting in Syria peaked last month, I wrote this post which was meant to be a practical and simple means of creating conversation and engaging Syrians who were present in our communities. To be honest, it gained very little traffic and that is okay. However, as the situation in the US intensifies this week, I choose to repost what I believe could be significant and managable steps for Christians to positively engage others.
It is my belief that much of the reaction against people who are refugees, especially against those from Muslim majority countries, stems from fear. I also believe that as people come to hear and to know a person as an individual rather than an ethnic group or a religious affiliation, the Holy Spirit is able to work on all of us. 5 Conversations that Christians Need to Have This Week With People Called ‘Refugee’ is an intentional push back on the fear narrative. It is not meant to offend but it does stand solidly on a theology of hospitality guided by scriptures, such as Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deureronomy 10:18-19. (For a more extensive list, see Relevant Magazine’s article.)
My own journey began 18 months ago on September 2, 2015 on the dirty floor of the Keleti train station in Budapest when I sat across from a couple from Syria to make my first interview with a refugee. My teachers were newlyweds from Homs who had fled their city 25 days earlier. They had been married 28 days. My first question was, ‘Why did you leave Syria?’ Muhammad looked at me and answered, “Surely you know?” Honestly, I had no real concept of the conflict that they had fled, nor his refugee journey, nor the trauma that all of it created.
The following suggestions are practical, honest, and dignity-driven means to a journey towards conversation, respect, and transformation.
1. HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION IN YOUR COUNTRY.
The conflicts in countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa are complicated. As outsiders, we do not fully understand the nature and the history of the conflict, but as Christians, we clearly stand against the loss of innocent lives. In order to positively contribute to peace in the Middle East and North Africa, we must be ready to learn and to listen. We do that best by inviting the voices of people we know and trust to speak into the media sources and social media posts that usually shape our understanding.
As Jesus-followers, we must direct our hearts, our voice, and our prayers in healthy, helpful, and respectful ways. To do that, we must take the position of learner and invite people to teach us about their culture, the situation, and their perspectives on peace. Find an asylum seeker, an immigrant, or a refugee today and ask him or her to explain their situation. Your role is to be a listener and a learner.
2. HOW IS YOUR FAMILY?
The cultures most deeply affected by the current refugee situation share a common value in their understandings of ‘family’. Most often, the word and concept includes their extended family, and it tends to be a much wider and deeper concept than in the west. In a culture where children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles often share the same dwelling space, being disconnected geographically from the larger family unit is a huge loss.
Many of the people now fleeing their countries have a loved one who is still in the midst of danger. They have genuine, heart-wrenching concerns for the safety of their family members. They may be dealing with some level of guilt for leaving someone behind while they sought safety for themselves.
Make time to ask, listen, and lament with them over the concern and/or the loss of family – it will speak volumes. You can tell them that you will be calling upon the Lord for God’s provision upon their family and then do that faithfully. Make your prayers for their family a consistent and daily part of your talking to God.
3. WELCOME TO MY HOME.
The home is the center of life in many cultures and the guest in a home is treated with honor. The extension of hospitality is such an integral part of culture that even in their journey through the Balkans, there are a plethora of stories about refugees welcoming into and serving western strangers in their tents. I personally have experienced this numerous times as the guest in a tent.
If you have a colleague, acquaintance, or neighbor, invite them into your home for coffee and desert. There is no pressure to have a perfect house or an elaborate meal – just be warm and inviting and set aside some time to simply talk. Get to know them as a person. If your home is not convenient or seems too intimate, then try a local coffee shop as a first step.
While not wanting to impose stereotypes or stigma, one should be aware of and respect gender boundaries. Meeting together as couples is very acceptable.
4. I WANT PEACE FOR YOUR COUNTRY TOO.
True peace is more than an end to the war – it is the existence of a just and a fair society for everyone who lives in a country. Pursuing opportunities to speak up for peace is a good beginning. Our voices influence public opinion, which then pressures governments to act in accordance with the will of the people. Words have power.
That awesome wave of power begins right where scripture tells us: James reminds us that the tongue is a small member, like the rudder of a ship, but it boasts of great things. And Proverbs 12:18 reminds us that a gentle tongue brings healing. These scriptures remind us to guard the words we speak, but of equal importance, we are to be vigilant about how we allow words to shape us.
Consume media responsibly with an awareness of both its stated and implied bias. So, too, in our conversations with others, including our personal social media platforms, we should submit our words to the Lordship of Christ. This includes an active rejection of the negative narrative of fear and prejudice that is currently trying to shape public opinion.
Vary your media sources across political and ideological lines, talk to people from the countries in conflict, ask God for discernment, and speak truth about the refugee situation every chance you get.
Fact check and reject stories that sensationalize radicalization or acts of terror as a characteristic of ALL Syrians (or Iraqis or Somalis), or ALL people from the Middle East, or ALL people of Muslim faith.
Confront prejudices and speak up in support of people and the pursuit of peace in your conversations with family, friends, and co-workers.
5. TELL ME YOUR STORY.
As Christians, it is God-honoring to invite someone, including someone from a different faith background, to tell you their story. Be respectful. Listen. It really is that simple.
Often, Christians feel pressured to share the Gospel or even to point out areas of religious disagreement, but it is okay to simply listen, learn, and thank a person for sharing. The powerful truth is that God’s grace is already actively at work and you have carried his presence into that relational space. Be faithful to pray for your new friends, and if or when they invite you to share your story, do so in a respectful and non-manipulative manner. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your words and to keep you authentic.
The opportunity to hear someone’s story is a gift and it should be treated with honor and respect. It is also a powerful and often unnerving means of recognizing and facing the hidden prejudices that we carry. Be open to letting God change and transform your heart and your attitudes. Allow the Holy Spirit to reveal new aspects or depths of his character to you as you see the world through another person’s eyes.
A FINAL THOUGHT
If this article motivates readers to push past fear or uncertainty in order to bridge the gap that divides us by labels, ideologies, backgrounds, and stereotypes, it has fulfilled its intent. May each of us find the courage we need for the conversations that lie ahead – perhaps God will surprise us by just how connected we really are. Together, let us map a space etched in grace and gratitude that leads us all to a path named Peace.