Reaching refugees with the abundant life of Christ
By Shane Bennett
It was still dark when our team leader rousted us out of bed and said it was time to go. I shrugged on some clothes and with the others slunk out into the early morning coolness of Irbid, Jordan. We were there for the summer (a summer long ago) in order to learn about the city’s cultures and wonder with God about his kingdom coming there. On this particular morning we were off to attend early prayers at a mosque in a Palestinian refugee camp.
We sat at the back of the room and watched as a few people arrived, prepared, and prayed together. When the pre-dawn faithful filed out, they greeted us warmly and one young man invited us to his house for breakfast.
Another brief walk in the dark took us to his small, concrete block home. He woke his sleepy wife and soon we were enjoying steaming tea and delicious watermelon. He shared stories of their lives in challenging times and situations and I was struck both by their suffering and by their hospitality in spite of it.
Something began to form in me that morning. As watermelon juice dripped down my hand, love from and for refugees began to flow in my soul.
Today more than 50 million people are displaced from their homes. If these refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people had their own country, only two dozen of the world’s countries would have a larger population. This is hardship, pain, and desperation on a scale I cannot imagine. It is also opportunity for the gospel which we dare not overlook.
I want to care for refugees because the gospel, as embodied in Jesus, is for people in the most desperate of situations. Jesus not only taught us but showed us that he came for those with little or no hope, the homeless, the dispossessed, and the overlooked. Caring for refugees is the way of Jesus. I assume this is a reminder and not a new thought for you. But I know I often need reminding of who this Jesus is and what he is about.
I also want to care for the displaced because they often represent peoples I deeply long to see introduced to the good news of Jesus, like Syrians, Somalis, Afghans. These are some of the most under-served peoples on the planet. And their homelands are some of the most challenging places for potential ambassadors to visit or live. Yet we now find them in great numbers in places that are readily accessible: Jordan and Turkey, Athens and Berlin. Churches that could not imagine sending their people to Pakistan or Ethiopia might be open to them going to England or Belgium.
And finally, reaching out to refugees is an investment in long-term peace. It’s an example of Wendell Berry’s admonition to plant sequoias. Talking about how believers should respond to ISIS, a friend asked recently, “And are there logs in the eyes of those of us who claim the way of Jesus as the way for the whole world? If the church had done its job of sharing Jesus in the Arab world in years past, would we have this issue? If the boys who are now men in ISIS, ten years ago, had heard and received the good news of Jesus – would they be doing what they are now?
We can’t go back and be there ten years ago, but what about today? Where are the future fighters for ISIS (or whatever) right now? Some of them are languishing in the refugee camps of the world. We have some decisions to make. If Jesus’ pledge that he came so we might have life and have it abundantly is true at all, it’s true for the world’s refugee population. Is it possible that a huge outpouring of love in the name of Jesus might stem the tide of future violence?
(Watch an amazing TED talk from Melissa Fleming, head of communications for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, inviting us to care for refugees in ways that go beyond simply meeting the very basic needs of life).
So what can we do? As mobilizers, what can we invite our friends, our churches to do? Here are some of my ideas along with an invitation for yours.
Learn a little then get the word out. Let people know the heart-wrenching need and the unprecedented opportunity for the work of Jesus. Write, speak, update your status, tweet, blog, make movies or more.
If you live among or near refugee populations, develop ways for churches to provide helpful services then invite them to come and serve refugees.
3. Pray and Give
We can support and pray for people, like my friend Wendy in the UK, who are reaching out to refugees (or, in Wendy’s words, “loving the overlooked”). We can get informed and pray for God’s kingdom to flourish among refugees. And of course, we can invite others into our prayers.
Join or form a team with a great mission agency like Frontiers to provide long-term presence among a stabilizing refugee population. Or come with me to reach out to the burgeoning mass of refugees in Catania, Italy, my new favorite city. I’m looking for dozens of individuals along with six to eight intrepid churches who will consider a 3-5-year commitment to bringing the abundant life of Jesus to refugees there from North and East Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.
What else can we do? I’d love to hear your thoughts, your ideas, and how Jesus is leading you to respond to the greatest number of displaced people that we’ve seen since World War II. This is the day. Let’s do something epic.
Feel free to forward to a friend you’d like to see caring for refugees.