Incarnational Mission, Part II: Refugees

Screen Shot 2016-11-28 at 12.08.31 PM                                                               Arrival in Lesbos

If we have grown accustomed to the internationals in our schools and on our trains, we do not have such a sanguine reaction to refugees.

Their arrivals in airports, bans from certain countries, photographs of trials, stories, and much more keep refugees before us and on our consciences. But do we like them? Are we glad they are here? Do we understand why they left their homes? How are we going to cope with them, wherever it is that we live?

For most people in the United States, having Muslims in the neighborhood is a rare thing. That is reflected in how many churches fail to respond to their presence. Several years ago I worked with an organization in Richmond, Virginia, whose mission was to alert churches to the presence of Muslims nearby, inform them about Islam, and equip them to share the faith of Jesus Christ with them.

In spite of gentle persistence and excellent resources, we were singularly unsuccessful. Some did respond and go the course. Many congregations, however, just had too many programs to keep going, a heavy worship schedule, endless pastoral care, and a stretched budget.  Facing the possibility of a Muslim inquirer on a Sunday was too much.

Much of that unsatisfactory response has deep roots in our unfamiliarity with people of other faiths, and in particular Muslims. Stereotypes overrule.

Other countries have a different history and a different presence with Muslims. Of course, we read of many ways people put up obstacles to “letting them in,” but we also read of anecdotal evidence of scores of Muslims coming to faith in Jesus Christ. The problem with anecdotal data is how easily it can be exaggerated or undervalued. Still, what we know, we do know.

One place, a church in Berlin, has recorded baptisms of Muslims in the hundreds. The congregation has grown to 700 from 150 before the arrival of refugees. In Bradford, England, one in four confirmations last year were of Muslim converts. A brief search turns up a series of other stories and statistics like these.

One researcher who tracks the number of converts from Islam told me that these refugee conversions are frequent in Europe but scarce in the United States. The reasons he mentioned for our slow response were those that I have outlined above.

Another Google search can bring out lists and articles of ways for us to respond as individuals. I will add my own list here. This comes because of the picture at the top of this page. The picture is a painting from a photograph by Antonio Masiello.  The painting is by my wife, Constance.

At the New Wineskins Mission Conference last May, Constance was challenged to use her art skill for issues of justice relating to refugees. Over the last ten months she has been painting scenes from the life of refugees. The series takes its title from Jeremiah, “Reaching for a Hope and a Future.” The series will be on exhibit for the months of June and July at the Richmond Public Library. Her full show can be seen at

Enough of a commercial. (Well, I am her patron, so some promotion is to be expected.) Back to a list of ways to respond, a list that has emerged from living alongside the creation of this exhibit:

What can I do to help?

1. Explore.  Commit time to go through websites about the current needs of refugees. This should include finding current and old news articles, especially those that track journeys of individual refugees. Other websites list agencies that are working on the various supports. Delve into each plank to our minds and hearts to the despair and the courage that prompted them to leave.

2. Focus. What particular phase of the refugees’ journey captures your attention: Where they came from, why they left home, what happens in their journey, who are those who assist, how are they received, or something else. Is it the deathly scenes back home, or the scandalous behavior of the moles, or the risks and compassion of the rescue boats, or the spectrum of health, depression, food, poverty, and education of them along the way? Something from our research will touch our hears, or already has. That is where each of us should decide for further pursuit

3. Research your topic. Contact local or international agencies that can inform you thoroughly about your specific interest. They are there—the agencies that address the very needs that have caught your attention. Contact them, learn what they do, find out how they operate, and keep asking questions until you find a place where you can join.

4. Be their advocate. First, bring them before God in prayer. He knows the life of refugees. He went ahead of Moses and the Hebrew people for 40 years. He watched over the Holy Family in their flight and escape to Egypt. He was with them when they returned and settled in a new place.

Second, be their advocate in conversation with nay-sayers, with elected officials, with church friends and leaders. Influence, attitudes, and decisions play a part in helping.

5. Take action. This is where it gets personal and individual. Find ways to volunteer, people to encourage, programs to support. Develop plans for your own response, plans that encompass time, money, and specific steps. Set out goals and benchmarks into the future so that it will be hard for you to lose heart and momentum.

What results from this is a two-way street: We can be Christ’s love to them. “The commandments are summed up in this, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” They can be Christ to us. “Like as you have done this unto them, you have done this unto Me.”

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Finding the Fields

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If we cannot be part of the lives in these unharvested fields, we go against biblical principles. Isn’t that the essence of Christ’s Great Commission in John: “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.” That’s the call to be incarnational in our missional efforts, and to do that with these unharvested fields is simply impractical and impossible.

Moving forward with the noble intent of “taking them the Gospel” leads to disparaging anthropology and dubious missiology. This is not to be obscure but to state the obvious. This anthropology assigns no value to their systems of health, education, justice, and family. They are merely souls to be won. The missiology justifies pressing on no matter what, but the results are all too often tales that leave Christians with red faces of embarrassment.

There are alternatives. We have inroads into a myriad of needy people within our reach. For these we can enter into their lives, understand their deep needs, and have the opportunity of influence, improvement, and mutual benefit. That is where we ought to be deploying our mission energy.

The question this raises is whether there are ways of incarnational mission to the fields that remain unharvested. The answer is, yes, there are, and the places are the cities of the world.

Before I give a microcosm of this from our recent trip to Ireland, let me give a link to a 16-minute talk I heard this recently at a Sunday School class. It is by Tim Keller, given at the Cape Town Assembly a couple of years ago. He expands on three simple points: why we must reach the cities, how we should, and why we can.

Now my microcosm. I’ll start with a report of our return trip from JFK airport to Leo House on 23rd Street, New York City. We took the E Subway from Nassau Station to the 23rd Street Station and were on the train for about 45 minutes. From where I was sitting I observed or spoke with these people:
A Serbian grandfather here for his grandson’s college graduation;
Three visitors arriving from Stavanger Airport, Sola, Norway;
Two others with the Russian airline “Aeroflot” on their baggage tickets;
Two women in intense conversation in their Eastern European language;
A Moroccan escorting the Serbian grandfather;
And the rest either giving attention to their screens or speaking Spanish.

Since I was sitting beside the Moroccan, I can tell you a little about him. He has been in the United States for eight years, studying film. He was from Casablanca, where I have visited, so we talked about the grand mosque right on the ocean and McDonald’s which serves travelers during Ramadan. He will return to his family and their village in three weeks for the month of Ramadan. He said that is a holy time for prayer, and the family time is most precious then. I forgot to ask my standard question of Muslims, “How many times have you been a suicide bomber?” I did tell him that I always join the Ramadan prayer discipline towards the end of the month when they pray for special revelations of God. He appreciated that but was unaware of the particular revelation of God that I pray for.

A couple of other spottings in the time away:

  • Backing out of the car park at Cashel Rock, near Cork, Ireland, I was astonished to see the model of the Nissan right beside us: Qashqai! Who would have expected the Japanese to draw attention to this non-Persian people of Iran?
  • If the Irish people are easy to spot with their peach complexion and red hair, most of the young walking the streets were definitely non-Irish.  What drew them to Dublin? Learning English. These students were there by the droves and were obviously from other parts of the world.
  • If “the world’s largest village,” Dublin, has a multitude of internationals students, I’m probably not too far off the mark to say that the number of international students here in Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University outnumbers the whole count of internationals in Dublin.
  • If New York City has 95% of the world’s countries, again I am not too far off the mark to say that Richmond probably has 75%.

Another worthwhile link, after listening to Tim Keller, is to absorb the insights at This ministry, Global Gates, actively pursues the opportunities I refer to here. It brings understanding, reports, ideas, and encouragement in the metropolitan environments of the world. The postings show ways of effective outreach in metropolitan environments.

What about world cities where US citizens are prohibited? The answer is another question: What about Chinese Christians who are not prohibited, or Philippine Christians, or Nigerian Christians, or Indonesians Christians? And the list goes on.

I know there are some who prefer not to travel like us, with 10 pounds in our backpacks for twelve days. Some actually prefer cruises! 🙂 A cursory search about life on cruise ships below decks reveals society of many different nationalities. Each has its specific tier in the service structure–to clean, serve, cook, run the casino, and do on. Many of them have Bible studies in their common places; many others sell pornography to supplement their salary. For Christians, the opportunity for witness is there almost at every turn. A little time, an introductory conversation, repeated interest, and “a word spoken in season” can take root.

What do these random observations have in common? Opportunities for incarnational mission among unharvested fields. On the subways, the buses, the streets, the classrooms, and around the pools of the ships, God is ready to expand these relationships and use them to show His love and mercy to the nations of the world.

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Codes of Honor

Ifraim and Scr

Distributing Bibles in a city north of Islamabad

My rule of thumb for handling cross-cultural differences is to get to the point where I can say that the difference makes perfect sense to me. This allows me to show respect and honor to their culture and that I understand what they are doing.

To show them this respect does not mean that I agree with what they do. I may find some behavior distasteful and immoral and would never replicate it. But the people know that I have made the effort to understand them.

The natural temptation, when faced with something we disagree with, is to hasten to let them know that we find it wrong. That ends the conversation. Most of the time they don’t need to be shown that. What they really want is understanding.

Last week I posted on the theme of “Danger!”  This difficult exercise—and I fully acknowledge that it is that—takes on deeper challenge when we come up against codes of honor with dangerous people. These codes may not ever be written or in a manual, but they teach each person how to live.

These codes are found in the proverbs, the sayings, the legends of the tribes. The men know these proverbs, and they pass them on to their children. Among them these customs rule with unchallenged power.

One missionary working with one of the dangerous tribes spent years collecting their aphorism and proverbs. By doing that, he became intimately aware of their culture. This achieved a deep acceptance in an otherwise closed society.

I would like to look at the proverbs and codes of the Pushtun of Pakistan, a people usually not friendly Christian messengers. They have lived in Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1000 years before Christ. That would be about the time of King David. Their code, well shaped over these millennia, is known as Pushtunwali. Within this are twelve primary virtues:

Hospitality—This first one carries great weight and expects respect to visitors, regardless of origins or clan.

Forgiveness or asylum—This extends to protection from enemies, at all costs and is granted until the full dispute is known.

Justice and revenge—And there is no time limit to this. The revenge often extends through generations.

Bravery—This defense comes out for land, family, and the honor of the name.

Loyalty—First of all loyalty, and at great sacrifice, to family, to friends, to neighbors. Not to show this brings great shame to the family.

Righteousness—As in striving for what is good in thought, word, and deed, this applies to the environment, to the cattle, and to people.

Faith—The object is the one God of Islam: Allah in Arabic, and Khudai in Pushtun.

Respect or pride and courage—If one does not have these qualities, he is not considered a Pushtun. This is of paramount importance, for it would be shown in bravery, loyalty, and revenge.

Protection of their women—This includes physical and vocal abuse.

Honor—This particular quality is seen towards the poor and weak.

Country—The land of the Pushtuns is sacred to them. It is to be defended for honor and for name.

To be sure, there are facets of these that we find startling. But that is not the point. Reading these shows how much of their culture is taught through these primary virtues. We should respect what they represent and appreciate those things that are honorable in the structures of their cultural life.

On a visit to Pakistan when I was a guest of a Christian evangelist, I joined him and his team on a trip into cities north of Islamabad. We carried with us Bibles in Urdu and gave them to whomever expressed interest. The picture above shows our leader with courage from the Holy Spirit offering the Word of God to the Muslims.

On our way home and at several other times he and the team offered free copies of the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs? Not the Gospel of John, or something similar?

Proverbs.  He explained that is what shows the culture of God, the code of Christians, what they can see of the God and Father of Jesus Christ through our code of life. Brilliant move.

A sampling of proverbs from the Yoruba Tribe of Nigeria (Not a dangerous people):
A great affair covers up a small matter.
A man with a cough cannot conceal himself.
A proverb is the horse that can carry one swiftly to the discovery of ideas.
After we fry the fat, we see what is left.
Anyone who sees beauty and does not look at it will soon be poor.
As long as there are lice in the seams of the garment there must be bloodstains on the fingernails.
Ashes always fly back in the face of him who throws them.
Because friendship is pleasant, we partake of our friend’s entertainment; not because we have not enough to eat in our own house.
Covetousness is the father of unfulfilled desires.
Fear a silent man. He has lips like a drum.
Gossips always suspect that others are talking about them.
He who eats well speaks well or it is a question of insanity.
He who throws a stone in the market will hit his relative.

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