Arrival in Lesbos
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 www.ArtByCdeb.com.
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.”