During the last two years, Europe has been shaken by a flow of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa crossing its borders and trying to find shelter from the long-lasting military conflicts and economic crises that have ruined their societies. There are about 1.5 million people who have applied for asylum in Europe for the first time (in the second half of 2015 and first half of 2016), with Germany being the most desired country.
Yet Europe has failed to speak with one voice and act in solidarity with the refugees and one another. There are several reasons for this, some quite understandable – a fear of Islam that has been fed by the terrorist attacks in several European cities, past history of immigration especially in the small post-Soviet countries, growing nationalist movements, so-called ‘poor’ economic situations, and others. As a result, more and more borders have been closed, fences have been built, and political agreements have been made to keep many refugees out.
For many Europeans, the refugee “others” are perceived as a threat and cause of crisis. Yet there are also many civil society organizations – and churches – that boldly witness to the opposite.
Early 2016, the European Baptist Federation’s member bodies came together for a conference
that was shaped around the theme Welcoming the Stranger: Live the Gospel, Share the Gospel, Be the Gospel. The stories shared came from across Europe and were truly prophetic. They testified that where refugees were welcomed and given a possibility to participate in the life of a local church community, they became a source of blessing. Encountering the other – someone from a different culture, tradition and religion – has caused many churches to re-visit their understanding of God’s Kingdom, to go back to the life and teaching of Jesus, and in this way to renew their commitment to be his followers in word and deed.
Here is a story from Finland
When you live in this Nordic country, you need to know how to ski! So the refugees who found shelter in Finland asked the local Baptist church members
in Oravais to teach them how to ski, both cross-country and downhill. The lady who went to practice skiing with them was very good at cross-country skiing, but didn’t know how to ski downhill. Yet the group was enthusiastic, so they tried together. Of course they fell together, got up, and fell again. We don’t know if they ever learned to ski downhill. Yet they learned something about how to trust and support each other and certainly how to laugh together. And in this trusting and mutually enriching relationship the Gospel has been shared and received. Oravais Baptist Church, which was a decreasing community, is now growing rapidly, and 90% of their regular congregation are people who have found a home in Finland during this refugee crisis.
Encountering the other is no doubt challenging. Yet in building relationships where love has conquered fear and people open their lives to receive the gift of the other, God’s Kingdom is being revealed.
Helle Liht is Assistant General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF). She is one of the members of an international working group that coordinates the EBF’s response to the migration/refugee situation.