The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Five stories of migrants and their neighbours in the Netherlands.
The city of Amsterdam has been a flashpoint for battles over Muslim immigration in the West since the beginning of the 21st century.
In 2004, Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker and vocal critic of Muslim immigrants, was shot and stabbed to death on the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist.
A national firestorm erupted. In the ensuing weeks more than 40 mosques and churches were either vandalized or burned. Shifting hard to the right, Dutch political culture saw the rise of populist leaders who were virulently anti-Islamic.
These nationalists argued that Muslim immigrants had two options: assimilate or leave. On the streets of Amsterdam a sense of distrust, division, and suspicion was palpable—on both sides.
A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE
The issue of Muslim immigration shows no sign of going away anytime soon in either Europe or North America. The church cannot ignore the issue. So, how should Christians respond?
For the past 20 years the majority of Western Christians have reacted to Muslim immigration by following the lights of the political right or left:
- The right has called them to relate to Muslims migrants with a sense of fear and suspicion.
- The left has called Christians to relate to them with a sense of liberal paternalism and religious relativism.
As a Christian citizen, I find the answers of the right and left to Muslim immigration to be politically unsustainable, and theologically bankrupt.
I believe that there is, in fact, an alternative and uniquely Christian response to this urgent question. Moreover, I believe that this conflict between Islam and the West represents a critical opportunity for Christian service, witness, and hospitality. I want to introduce five individual disciples, who are embodying a humble alternative witness amidst this clash.i
I believe that the conflict represents a critical missiological space in which the church can consider new opportunities for Christian witness and hospitality.ii These five disciples capture in small and humble ways what it means to learn from and lean into this ‘clash of civilizations’.
Two-thirds of the people living in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West neighbourhood were not born in the Netherlands—half of them are Muslim. Like many urban neighbourhoods in Europe, Nieuw-West struggles with high rates of poverty, crime, violence, unemployment, and interethnic tension.
In 2009, Serge de Boer and four other Christians came to the multi-cultural neighbourhood and planted a church. They called it Oase voor Nieuw-West (Oasis for New West). As eager church-planters, they began visiting their Muslim neighbours and frequenting the market.
They would engage young immigrants in conversation and invite them to come to their community for a free meal. The usual response was negative.
Discouraged, Oase made a critical turn that would forever change their posture toward the neighbourhood. Instead of offering to cook for them, Oase began to invite the new immigrants to come to Oase and cook a meal for their community.
The response was revealing. Migrants from all over the neighbourhood started coming to Oase to share their own traditional dishes with the community. When I asked Serge to explain what happened, he noted that there were three significant factors:
1. Migrants in the Netherlands are constantly treated as clients of the state in need of Dutch support, education, and civilization. Oase was offering these newcomers an opportunity to contribute and take action for themselves. Rather than be served, they had an opportunity to serve.
2. Oase was offering their neighbours an opportunity to share their unique food and culture in a country that often treats their cultural background with either suspicion or a patronizing nod.
3. The newcomers considered the opportunity to cook for large amounts of people an exciting honour and an important social responsibility.
‘God has given their culture something beautiful and the mealtime gives us all a chance to celebrate that,’ says de Boer. He goes on to say, ‘In every culture there are good and bad things but when you eat together you share in the good things that God has done in a person’s culture.’
And, ‘They don’t want to be served by a community, they want to be a part of a community.’ He also says, ‘When we eat together, we are much more relaxed, open, and willing to talk to those around us.’
Some of Europe’s fiercest debates over Muslim immigration take place in the city of Rotterdam. Trust is low and tensions are high.
Amid this urban fray a group of Christian women have decided to make their mark. They do not protest, run for office, or call for national dialogues or programmes. They sew.
Every month these women gather in a heavily Muslim neighbourhood to stitch, knit, and talk, and they invite their Muslim neighbours to join them. As the women work, the barriers crack and bonds begin to form:
- The Christians begin to realize that Muslims are not what they see on the news.
- The Muslims begin to realize that Christians are not what they see in the red-light district.
- They discover a mutual concern for the state of Dutch morality, character, and family.
- They worry together about their children in an increasingly materialistic and secular culture.
- As the Muslim women share their harrowing stories of immigration, Christian listening turns to Christian empathy. The Christian women hear how the Dutch have ignored, abused, and excluded their Muslim neighbours.
Achieving what no government programme could, this little sewing group is producing a rare social phenomenon in Dutch civil society: inter-ethnic, interfaith dialogue, and—more than that—affection.
The Christian women unapologetically stated that their hope was to share the story of Jesus with their new Muslim friends. ‘But,’ they hastened to add, ‘that is a very long road.’
They say, ‘God alone sows the seeds of conversion in a person’s soul. God alone makes the seeds of faith grow.’ And, ‘Our calling [is simply] to remove the stones from their garden.’ Stones of misunderstanding, mistrust, and enmity need to be uprooted through care and conversation. As they sew, they pray that God will sow seeds.
Martien Brinkman says,
I tell every student who comes to study theology at the Free University: you are all welcome here whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, liberal, Atheist, or something else. We will not ask you to hide, change, or apologize for your faith.
However, in our programme, you will have to learn about and listen to the beliefs of those around you.
Serving as a Christian professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, Martien Brinkman is cultivating a unique culture of academic hospitality across the faiths. In a time of interfaith tension and animosity, this is no easy task.
Brinkman argues that education can never be a religiously neutral activity. All students and professors will unavoidably bring their religious and ideological commitments into their teaching and research.
If this is true, Brinkman argues, then all students and faculty must be encouraged to be open and honest about their religious commitments. Inter-faith honesty and hospitality in the academy is not optional; it is an absolute necessity.
Brinkman argues that pretending to assimilate or refusing to recognize or wrestle with our religious differences is not helpful for student development, academic research, or for society at large.
Brinkman is here resisting a dominant academic culture in the West, which often sees faith commitments as impediments to critical thought and academic reflection. By contrast, Brinkman models radical academic hospitality and witnesses to his God of hospitality.
Gert and Rita Hunink say, ‘Muslims coming to the Netherlands should never have to fear Christian oppression. If they are going to fear anything, Muslims should fear that Christians will be so loving to them that they will feel the strong temptation to convert!’
Muslim immigration was not a question Sint-Joriskerk in Amersfoort was looking to answer until the question came to the church’s front door.
They were not sure what do when Shawky Hafez, a drug-addicted Muslim from Egypt, knocked on their door and announced, ‘I want to know about Jesus. Can you help me?’
Members of the church Rita and Gert Hunink began inviting Shawky into their home for coffee. They walked alongside Shawky as he worked through numerous challenges with addiction, unemployment, housing, and faith.
Amersfoort is home to an asylum centre which houses many displaced people from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. After Shawky’s arrival, more asylum-seekers began to join the gathering in the Hunink home.
Every week, they would come to play games and enjoy cake, coffee, and conversation. They would discuss the weather, the eccentricities of Dutch culture, the challenges of migration, and stories of Jesus. Their numbers continued to grow.
While opening one’s home may be a common practice in some cultures, it is not in the Netherlands. Shawky recalls that he had lived in the Netherlands for 18 years before he was invited into a Dutch home—the Huninks were the first to open their door.
Rita remarks that asylum-seekers coming to her home and church were not looking for a good sermon, exciting music, or even financial help—they were looking for a home, for a family.
They did not want a visit from another government social-worker; they wanted a relationship with a brother or sister.
The experience had a profound impact on more than Huninks’ church and home. It started to impact their politics as well. Gert is a local leader in the Christian Union political party.
As a national political movement, the push to the political right on the issue of Muslim immigration is particularly strong and tempting.
Gert argues within the party that the fearful rhetoric of the right is not an acceptable guide for Christian political action. Being in Christ, he argues, disciples have no right to fear Islam.
He says, ‘The only thing we can be afraid of is a weak church that does not faithfully reflect our saviour’s love and hospitality.’
Hunink argues that the Christian Union’s advocacy for national security and peace must begin with small and local acts of Christian hospitality. The families, schools, churches, and institutions within the Dutch Christian community must embody the peace they desire.
Hunink understands that a political platform founded on hospitality is at risk of being dismissed as naïve, cowardly, and weak.
To these charges his retort is simple: in cities so bereft of trust and friendship, few things are more courageous and more desperately needed than an open door and a cup of coffee.
These disciples are living out a theology of Christian hospitality amidst the conflict between Islam and the West. The church in the West desperately needs more models of gospel vulnerability and witness amidst this global conflict.
The dead-end paths of the political right and left demand a renewed gospel-shaped imagination in this critical missiological space.
Rev Dr Matthew Kaemingk, Assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Associate Dean of Fuller Texas in Houston.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission as part of the LGA Media Partnership. Learn more about this flagship publication from the Lausanne Movement at www.lausanne.org/lga.
The following accounts can be found in a more extended form in the author’s book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in An Age of Fear, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2018. These are used with the permission of Eerdmans Publishing.
ii Editor’s Note: See article by Sam George entitled, ‘Is God Reviving Europe through Refugees: Turning the greatest humanitarian crisis of our times into one of the greatest mission opportunities’, in May 2017 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2017-05/god-reviving-europe-refugees.