We are living in an unprecedented period of global displacement – the highest level on record, according to the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) – with over 65 million people around the world who have been forced from home. That’s a number almost double Canada’s entire population!
Canada has responded to the international crisis by receiving more refugees than in recent years, including resettling more than 34,000 people from Syria. Christian congregations are welcoming newcomers with assistance in housing and transition to a new culture. Christian refugee organizations such as Kinbrace, birthed out of Grandview Calvary Baptist in Vancouver, and Matthew House in Toronto are key contributors nationally in refugee support.
At the same time, there are misgivings and concerns within our country. We can be swayed by fear-producing rhetoric – ‘We are being swamped by refugees!’ ‘Some may be terrorists!’ We would do well to remember that most refugees are here because they are fleeing persecution, conflict, and possibly death. Most would return to their homeland in a heartbeat, if they could. Refugees are here because they are desperate. They have lost virtually everything and now they are seeking our hospitality. Each one is precious in God’s sight – each has a name, a history, and hope for a better future.
So, how does the Bible speak to this present crisis? And what might this mean for worshipping communities today?
“The “stranger” is someone who is displaced. Strangers have lost their homeland and their kindred. These people lack the resources to survive on their own.”
The “Stranger” in the Bible
The word that most closely corresponds to our modern notion of “refugee” in the Old Testament is (depending on the translation) stranger, alien, and sojourner. The “stranger” is someone who is displaced. Strangers have lost their homeland and their kindred. These people lack the resources to survive on their own. They are dependent upon the generosity of the Israelites among whom they hope to live. The book of Deuteronomy is especially concerned to protect such displaced people, referring to the stranger no less than 22 times!
An important passage for reflecting on our role in the current refugee crisis can be found in Deuteronomy 10:18-19: He (God) executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving them food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The attentive reader will note that the word “love” is used twice in these verses. God loves those whose lives are threatened by poverty and exclusion – the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger. God’s people are to respond by loving the stranger, remembering that their ancestors were once a people without a homeland.
It is important to grasp the way the theme of love is used in Deuteronomy 10.
1. God loves his people Israel.
2. God loves the stranger that has fled to the communities of Israel.
3. The communities of Israel are to love the stranger.
We learn that the kind of love that God has for his people is also the kind of love that God has for the stranger. In turn, Israel is to offer to the stranger this kind of love. God loves displaced people. This makes sense to us when we remember that the nation of ancient Israel was birthed when Yahweh redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt: God emancipated an enslaved nation. This is our God!
It can be meaningful to explore the meaning of the Hebrew word “love.” There are three important aspects that enable us to go deeper with these verses. First, love signifies a covenant commitment or bond of solidarity. Accordingly, God has had a commitment with those who live as strangers among his people. Second, love is a kinship word. People in the communities of Israel are to welcome the stranger as kin. Third, love is an emotion of the heart. Israel is to feel affection for vulnerable and displaced people that have come to their communities seeking asylum.
We need to think of the practical implications. The teaching of Deuteronomy was to be put into practice on the local family farm. In ancient times, strangers might be exploited as cheap labour or even enslaved. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 offers an alternative model for responding to displaced people. The stranger is to be loved. This means a sacred commitment to their well-being and acceptance. Families within Israel were to treat the stranger as kindred, enfolding displaced people into the extended family. And, Israelites were to feel compassion and affection for the stranger. As we have seen, this model is grounded in the reality of God’s love both for Israel and for the stranger.
“The stranger is to be loved. This means a sacred commitment to their well-being and acceptance. Families within Israel were to treat the stranger as kindred, enfolding displaced people into the extended family.”
What Might This Mean for Worshipping Communities Today?
Jesus taught that when his people welcomed the stranger they were welcoming him (Mt. 25:35). The Spirit of God invites worshipping communities today to live out this counter story within the context of other narratives of suspicion and fear. It takes energy and a deep commitment to live out the biblical model of a community that welcomes the stranger. Communities of Christ followers are invited into the joy of offering solidarity, kinship, and affection to people who have been displaced.
Here are five practical ways in which worshipping communities can live and act in covenant love for refugees.
First, churches can support refugees. Asylum-seekers arrive in Canada having experienced tremendous loss. Christ followers can offer newcomers the gift of friendship and a sense of family. It is a precious gift of time, to just be there for the person. Many churches are sponsoring refugees. This involves assuming the responsibility for settling and supporting refugees, including a financial commitment, and building new relationships of trust and affection. We recall that for most refugees, life in Canada is full of deep loneliness and a sense of not belonging.
Second, we can work toward relationships of mutuality. We can learn from our new neighbours – lessons about generosity, resilience, grief, and courage in facing danger. As we welcome refugees, we too are transformed through these friendships.
Third, we can help other Canadians move through their fears towards welcoming the refugee. We can find ways to invite our friends, family and acquaintances into these new relationships so that they too can meet the stranger as a person. We can also help them understand the process refugees go through – the rigorous security checks that are in place, far beyond the routine checking that regular visitors to Canada undergo. For while we certainly want to guard against terrorism, we shouldn’t penalize those arriving who are often victims themselves of terrorism. The Canadian Council for Refugees (ccrweb.ca) has helpful information.
Fourth, churches that sponsor or support refugees need to manage their expectations. We should realize, for example, that our new friends may not end up joining our church, even if they are Christians. Some will take longer than others to embrace Canada as their new home. We cannot predict or control what their lives in Canada will look like. We are simply responsible to offer our friendship and to provide some stepping stones for newcomers.
Fifth, congregations may consider advocating at a political level in regard to decisions that impact on refugee resettlement in Canada. Advocacy can take various shapes. Some pastors have addressed Canadian refugee policy in their preaching. My own church held a service of lament over harsh Canadian refugee legislation. Some churches have written bulk letters to their local Members of Parliament. One pressing area for advocacy is the need for speedy family reunification. Years of separation can cause massive emotional wounds on family members who are separated from loved ones.
Christ invites each of us to soften the boundaries of our life in order to let other people come into our world. As we do, we can expect to be transformed in unexpected ways.