The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
A starting point: invite a refugee to go with you to visit a museum, watch a football match, share a meal.
The recent evacuation of the Calais jungle, as well as the break-up of the camps in Paris, are signs of the changing mood toward refugees.
Since June 2015, the makeshift camps in Paris have been evacuated over thirty times. 15,000 displaced people have been sent out of the city to find shelter in other parts of the region. Although the flow of people through Turkey has slowed, the number of those crossing the Mediterranean to Southern Europe has increased. There are more deaths now at sea than ever before.
The French government has set up over 450 centres for reception and orientation (CAO) to accommodate the influx of new arrivals. The CAO are a temporary solution for lodging in the wake of the on-going refugee crisis.
Although the camps in France have been temporarily cleared away and the people dispersed all over the country, there is not a long-term solution. The people have simply been shifted to other areas.
In contrast to this short-term response, churches and community groups across the country now have the opportunity to offer a more durable solution by welcoming these strangers who have come to their front door.
A WELCOME THAT REACHES THE HEART
The scriptures give God's people a clear mandate to love the stranger as one of their own (Leviticus 19:33-34). Likewise, Jesus emphasizes that love for God and love for others belong together (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27). These expectations are relevant to church communities today in the current crisis.
On a personal level, Scripture calls God's people to action and not to waste time waiting for authorities to find solutions. The churches' response to the shifting nature of the refugee crisis is to be rooted in faith, hope and love. It stands ready to welcome the migrant, refugee and stranger as fellow human beings with spiritual needs.
We find a similar response in Philemon when Paul writes to the small house church. Paul calls on the church to receive Onesimus on the basis of a common humanity and faith (v. 12, 16-17). This kind of welcome will show the love that Paul has heard about (v. 4-7). Paul asks the small church to welcome the man they once saw as useless, and who has become like family to him. This is similar to the current crisis. The church is being asked to see the stranger with new eyes and to respond in a way that reaches the heart.
IAFR IN EUROPE
International Association for Refugees (IAFR) can identify with Paul in Philemon when he says that Onesismus is like a son (v.10). Many of those who meet refugees develop friendships. If the refugees are forced to flee again, whether to somewhere within France, or to other parts of Europe, we commend these friends to other churches.
In Northern France, IAFR is preparing to open a centre that will focus on the needs of the heart as most existing efforts focus solely on providing physical relief and aid. In Rome, the association is supporting a similar ministry centre that is showing hospitality to refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom live on the streets. In Malta, IAFR is assisting refugees and migrants with integration, and in Austria, the group is in the early stages of developing ministry designed to address the educational needs of refugee children.
Across Europe, IAFR is taking part in the network of the Refugee Highway Partnership to strengthen the international resources and perspectives needed for refugee ministry.
STEPS TO WELCOME
Local churches in Europe face a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. The plight of these strangers is often ignored. It is difficult to know what is actually happening on the ground and what specific needs and opportunities exist.
I suggest the following steps as a starting point for churches to give a welcome that reaches the heart.
- Visit the CAO info webpage to locate the closest centre for asylum seekers.
- Contact the director or the organization responsible (found on the CAO page) to volunteer or offer an event for friendship building such as games, sports or some other cultural event.
- Invite a refugee to go with you to visit a museum, watch a football match, share a meal.
- Contact IAFR for more help or ideas.
Paul Sydnor is European Director of International Association for Refugees (IAFR).