The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
“In the camp I started a prayer meeting, and preached the gospel – a kind of refugee church with a lot of young people began.” Vimal Vimalasekaran now serves among asylum seekers in Germany.
An interview by Jo Appleton, Vista Magazine, with European Christian Mission worker Vimal Vimalasekaran
Question. You are currently based in Germany, although you grew up in Sri Lanka and were a refugee yourself. Can you share some of your journey so far?
Answer. I grew up in Sri Lanka in a multi religious family. Because of the civil war I went to India as a refugee aged 18. All my town was escaping at the time. I became a Christian through the ministry of a pastor in the refugee camp who invited me to a vocational training institute. In the camp I started a prayer meeting, and preached the gospel – a kind of refugee church with a lot of young people began. After about three and a half years I came back to Sri Lanka. I studied accounting, but wanted to do theological education.
God opened a pastoral training scholarship for me in London. Then I ended up going to the Irish Baptist College where I completed Diploma in Missions Studies and then completed my theological studies in Queen’s University of Belfast where I also pursued M.Phil. During my time in the UK, I met and married Louise and was assistant pastor in a Northern Irish church.
In 1998, we had an outreach in Freiburg where we worked with refugees and it was there I received my call to do refugee ministry. We joined ECM in 1999 and worked in Freiburg for a number of years. In 2008, I completed my Doctoral Studies in Intercultural Studies. By 2011, numbers of refugees arrivals were so low, so we decided to go to Karlsruhe where the central processing centre is, to connect with refugees being sent out from there. We have been there for four years and the Lord has blessed the ministry.
Q. What is your current focus?
A. Since we moved here we have worked with the refugees in the processing centre. They are kept there for 6 – 8 weeks and don’t have a lot of contact outside the camp. We have a welcome team from four or five churches and go in, talk to them, sit down with them.
We are trying to help them in any way – language, legal issues, traumatised people take them to counselling. That is only possible for them if we come near to these people. We tell them we are Christians and invite them to our churches. Currently we have weekly international evenings in the churches where we teach them some German language, talk a little about the Gospel and sing and explain something of the culture before having a meal together. There are held in different churches each week.
I also connect with the local churches and encourage them to visit people. This is important. I too am a foreigner, but it is nothing like a German visiting the refugees. The government is providing a good deal for the refugees - food, clothing, shelter - everything. But the refugees come from a culture that integrates faith with everyday life and they are expecting more.
The gap we want to fill is the spiritual care, the pastoral nature – coming alongside people and to reassure them we can be their friends we can help them. There is a greater person who can be their supporter who is greater than us humans, namely Jesus Christ. We are not ashamed of that. They also have a desire to know more about Christianity and how Europeans practice their faith.
Q. How does your experience of being a refugee inform what you do?
A. It enables me to think compassionately and cerebrally because I understand and identify the concerns and feelings I had on the one side, but on the other side I can look at facts and realities that we face every day. I am careful because my experience is very limited to my Sri Lankan context so I try to balance it out. I have written a little booklet called ‘Jesus, I was a refugee’, which is my template in many ways as a Christian because the Lord met me when I was a refugee. So I always go back and say ‘what is the significance of God becoming the refuge for the refugee.’
Q. How did the migrant crisis change your ministry?
A. Currently there are around 5000 migrants in our city at any one time – this has grown from about 1000 before the summer. Germany divides up the migrants according to the population in each province. Our province has received 12.9% of the refugees, so we have received 129,000 of the million who arrived in Germany this year.
Since the crisis we have had more support from the churches than ever before. It has helped Christians to open up their churches and their hearts. They are evaluating their faith in this crisis, asking ‘what is my stand?’ ‘how can I be part of it?’ and ‘how does my faith relate to this issue?’ We provide training and information. Ministries are starting, such as an international café in one of the churches. Sustaining it beyond just a crisis response will be more difficult.
Refugees who are granted asylum will stay in this province. Should he go into the society in isolation, or with some relationships already established? Christians need to catch the vision of building these relationships and helping with language and culture issues.
Q. Have any fears been expressed about the long term issues?
A. Yes – there is a huge fear at the moment. At the beginning, the Germans were so excited to invite a lot of people, now the reality has sunk in and now there is a lot of opposition. To them it looks like we are the only country taking refugees. Most Christians I have met so far are very positive open and willing.
Their concern is the Muslim question, will it lead to more terrorism? My theory is that we need to meet in the middle between integration and inclusion – I call it “Interclusion” (I created this word) - as a refugee I need to learn the culture and language, but society also needs to accept me as I am. Protecting my identity is why I left my country. When a migrant gets here we tell them to change and fit in, but that is exactly what the dictator was saying in their country. Somewhere we have to have a balance, this I call “Interclusion”.
Q. What are your hopes for the future?
A. I am praying and asking for support for a Christian refugee centre where all people can come to spend some time, cook their food, and we can offer pastoral care for their spiritual needs and vocational training. There is no shame in saying we are caring for those who are in need. In Germany it is difficult to do something overly Christian.
A lot of churches would be happy with some kind of social centre, but we would like to say ‘we love because we love the Lord and we love the people.’ The longer I work with refugees, the more I am convinced that Christ is more important than any ingenuity that we have created in humanity. I have seen that Christ can heal what humans cannot. He can come in in an amazing way, take away the pain and help them to the place where he is their refuge. That is the conviction I hope I will never give up.
Vimal Vimalasekaran works with European Christian Mission amongst migrants in Karlsruhe, Germany.