The church and the refugee

“I’m not in a good situation right now.”

Daryush (not his real name) stares at the floor of the church hall with glazed eyes, cup in hand (two teabags, four sugars). The words slowly spill out in broken English. He had just spent the last of that fortnight’s money on antibiotics when his caseworker called. “They move me again. I have to be ready tomorrow morning. He not explain why.” Moving means leaving his only near-culture friend and finding his way in yet another neighbourhood – his fourth since arriving in Australia three years ago. Then came an email from his family in his home country. Daryush’s parents, who are strict in their faith, know he has become a believer and want nothing more to do with him. He blinks back tears. I ask what he will do now. The cup quivers. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

We still haven’t become used to the weight of stories like these, a common part of our work with asylum seekers, refugees and new migrants in Sydney’s northwest. Of course, there are the stories of cruelty and oppression we expect for asylum seekers – of torture, arrest, police brutality, religious hatred. There is the constant heartache of those who have left everything and everyone to make that perilous journey to seek safety in Australia. We expect to hear that much. What we weren’t prepared for were the ways these stories continue within our own borders.

It wasn’t so long ago that our Prime Minister launched his policy of deterrence of so-called ‘illegal’ attempts at asylum with these words: “This is our country. We determine who comes here, and the circumstances in which they come.”¹ Since then, we’ve learned what that word ‘we’ – that tiny, yet powerful word – can mean for asylum seekers, and what it betrays about Australia’s sentiments.² ‘We’ decides who comes here. ‘We’ are not obliged to assess ‘you’, accommodate ‘you’, or tolerate ‘you’. When asylum seekers, refugees and others from across the seas are so framed, the gap between settled Aussies and these unsettled others begins to widen.

For friends of ours like Daryush, that gap is only getting wider. After years in a detention centre, he was released and given permission to live ‘in community’; two years later, though, I remain his only Australian friend. When I express my surprise at this, he tells me story after story of trying to strike up conversations on trains, at the shops, or waiting for the bus. “Nobody talks to me.” He laughs. “Maybe because I’m brown. Maybe they think I’m a terrorist.” For Daryush, and for thousands more,³ this is the distressing irony of life ‘in community’. Surrounded by Australians, there is no-one to welcome him home, no-one to talk to over a cup of chai, no-one to show him the best picnic spots, no-one to listen. Instead, unable to meaningfully structure his days, he spends most of his time alone, thinking of a family far away and waiting, perhaps, for the phone to ring.

The church of God stands ready to resist this gap between ‘we’ and ‘you’. We ourselves live in a community carved out by the unrelenting beat of God’s heart for the unworthy; while “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), God saw fit to pursue us and to give us new life at the cost of His dear Son. ‘We’, like the refugee, could contribute little, but stood to gain so much through that love and the love of His people. And, so loved and transformed, we are now able to love and include others in the same way – not plagued by anxiety about our resources or our national security or even our awkward post-church morning-tea conversations. Instead, we are to be haunted by the stories of our spiritual ancestors (themselves a displaced people – Deut 10:18–19), by our Lord’s words of welcome for all who bear His image (Matt 25:35–40).

In our corner of this city, we’re having a crack at being this kind of welcoming church community for the asylum seekers and new migrants among us. At times, it means providing bags of groceries, mobile phone credit and other essentials, but we’ve been most surprised and encouraged by what happens when we gather around the dinner table. In this, the ministry of the roast chook and prefab pavlova, the refugee and the student can mingle with locals, and friendship and trust begins. We’ve laughed, we’ve shared, we’ve learnt new things. Occasionally, we’ve cried. Almost always, we’ve planned to meet again. And through these meals, we’ve seen people from far-off lands draw closer to the One who Himself became a refugee, if only for a little time (Matt 2:13–14).

It’s not always easy, and we are never far away from rehearsing those same tired divisions between ‘we’ and ‘you.’ But we are convinced that our commitment to both ‘word’ and ‘deed’ cannot be delegated to an NGO or a faraway mission agency. Our church – and yours – has a rich opportunity to invite refugees and new migrants into our community. Why not have a go?

Steam fogs the windows as we open the crockpots and serve up. Daryush, along with four other asylum seekers and two international students, has joined us to mark Persian New Year. There is red wine, kebabs, and even our feeble attempt at Persian rice. Many hours of comparing cultures and faiths follows. Daryush is quiet – this is meant to be a time when the pain of the old year is forgotten, though there is little chance of that when no-one knows what might happen to him tomorrow, or the day after. But, as he leaves that evening (leftovers in hand), he smiles and embraces me. “Thank-you”, he whispers. “Thanks, God, for you, my family.”

This article was written by a CultureConnect worker in Sydney.

[2] A January 2014 poll conducted by UMR Research suggests that up to 59% of Australians believe most asylum seekers who arrive by boat are not genuine refugees, and oppose the provision of any assistance to them. However, government statistics demonstrate that up to 80% of asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees; Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Asylum Trends 2012–2013.
[3] An estimated 33,744 people are currently waiting for Australia to determine their asylum claims; Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Immigration Detention and Security Statistics Summary – March 2014.

Seven Habits of a Refugee-Welcoming Church

I don’t often cry reading the news, but I did shed a tear earlier in the year when three year-old Alan Kurdi appeared in my newsfeed. The images of his body, face down in the sand, remain a chilling reminder of the dangers faced by those fleeing conflicts in Syria and across the Middle East. Despite those dangers, millions of people continue to risk everything for the hope of refuge beyond their borders.

But I also cried because it took the photograph of a lifeless child on a Turkish beach to provoke a response from nations around the world. We – and so many believers – have felt the pressing need to show compassion and Christ’s care for people like Alan Kurdi and their families. But the sheer size of the crisis, and the fact that we are unimaginably distant from it, mean that we can sometimes feel overwhelmed and powerless. How can churches here do anything meaningful for those seeking protection around the globe?

Our experience working with CultureConnect amongst people seeking asylum in Sydney is that the church can be a wonderful welcomer of the displaced right here – we just need to start somewhere. Here are seven habits we think many, if not all, churches can get into.

1. Connect, one person at a time.

“I’d love to welcome a refugee – if only I knew where to find them!” We hear this so often when we share about our work with displaced people. It isn’t often that a person seeking asylum will rock up at church without an introduction; ask God to lead you to them first. You might try spending time in a culturally diverse part of your city, chatting to locals. Consider English classes or other initiatives that engage new arrivals to Australia. [1] Community organisations working with people seeking asylum often need volunteers to help refugees to settle well and feel at home in Australia – it may take some effort, but the new friendships will be well worth it.

2. The roof is your introduction.

We’ve noticed that for many people seeking asylum, walking into a church building feels like walking onto a film set without a script. Strange music is playing, strange words are being used, and everyone seems to know when to stand and sit – except you. It can be a bewildering experience for them, especially if Christian worship was forbidden in their country of origin. So you can imagine that one of the hardest things for us has been watching displaced people visit our church without being welcomed. They sit at the back or stand by themselves in the morning-tea crush, surrounded by regulars catching up with one another over a cuppa.

It can be incredibly hard talking to someone new for the first time, but as someone once told us, ‘the roof is your introduction’. That is, if you and someone else are in the same place, under the same roof, you have at least one thing in common! See where that introduction might take you.

3. “Won’t you have some tea?”

We’ll tell you our secret for the best connections with people seeking asylum: tea and hospitality. Awkward post-church conversations aside, one of the best ways to connect deeply with people is to share time around the table. Meals – or even just cups of tea – are the currency of so many cultures from which our displaced friends come. Almost invariably, they miss that togetherness and community. Why not have a go at offering that togetherness to them? It need not be a complicated affair. What really matters is your willingness to welcome them into your home and into your life.

4. Listen, don’t just do.

As we’ve built trust with our friends who are seeking asylum, we’ve gotten used to the problems they face every day as they try to build new lives here. When food has run out, we’ve bought groceries. When we learned our friend was sleeping on the floor of his rented room, we found a mattress. We’ve fixed cars, looked for jobs, sourced crisis accommodation, provided lifts to church, and written countless letters to support claims for protection. All these things are critical parts of ministry to the displaced; at their best, they show Christ’s care for the whole person.

However, if our welcome consists only of these things, then it can very quickly devour us. There have been times where we’ve been burned out by compassion. We’ve been wearied by what feels like endless neediness from the very people we are trying to serve. God has shown us (the hard way!) that sometimes, it’s best to do less and listen more. It can be easy to jump to conclusions about what we think a displaced person needs, and to go ahead and do it – but rather than fix all their problems, we are learning to be present with them. We pray with them. We try to be a family of faith surrounding them with grace. When we journey with people seeking asylum, we can learn so much from them about perseverance and the struggles of life in this present age. Our friends who trust Jesus have become for us one of the clearest pictures of the work of God in bitterness and trial that we in the West can ever hope to see.

5. Join forces.

Ministry amongst people seeking asylum can often be a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. On your own, it can quickly become overwhelming. Seek out people who share your concern for the displaced, either in your church or further afield. For us, that meant getting together with two other families to plan welcome dinners and support for asylum seekers in our church. What might it look like for you to team up with others? Perhaps your church could start something big, like English classes for migrants. Something smaller might be mobilising your church to provide food for those seeking asylum in your community. [2]

6. Pray.

However we go about welcoming refugees, we must begin in prayer to the God who is a refuge for all of us (Psalm 62:8). He alone can bring peace and healing to the broken-hearted, and prayer must be at the heart of any ministry to the displaced. When we fold our concern into the public prayer lives of our church, it can be a strong signal that our care comes from the heart of God. It also tells our friends seeking asylum that their unfinished journeys lie in His care, and that His people have not forgotten them.

It can be difficult to know how to pray. You can keep informed through news sites, or through more general Christian resources such as Operation World. [3] Interserve also have a number of Partners at work amongst people seeking asylum, both in Australia and abroad, whom you could uphold in prayer.

7. Change the conversation.

The broader discussion in Australia about asylum issues is sometimes enough to make us despair. Instead of talking about rights or responsibilities, our leaders are more concerned about ‘stopping the boats’ and deterrence through detention. People seeking asylum have become a target for anxieties about security and the threat of religious terrorism. As they are increasingly marginalised in our communities, the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is reinforced. The church, however, can speak life into this discussion. Pick up your pens and write to your local Member of Parliament (a real, paper-and-pen letter is far more likely to be read than an email) and let them know your views on asylum policy. Share stories about the positive impact refugees can have in their new homes. Be informed about the many myths circulating about refugees [4] and become equipped to reframe the conversation constructively. These might seem like small steps, but they can go a long way towards changing the way neighbours and communities think about the displaced and how we should receive them.

These seven habits of a refugee-welcoming church may not change the tragedies that led to Alan Kurdi’s body washing up on that beach. However, we hope they will spark your imaginations for embracing those who did make it to our shores, and through that embrace, for showing them the divine love, which opens up the highest possibilities.

This article was written by an Interserve Partner and CultureConnect worker preparing to serve in West Asia alongside refugees.

[1] For those in Sydney, the Welcome Dinner Project aims to bring established Australians together with new arrivals around the kitchen table.

[2] Simple Love is a Christian organisation doing this kind of work in the Sydney region.

[3] Operation World is a guide for praying specifically for each nation around the world.

[4] The Refugee Council of Australia, for example, has produced a number of useful fact sheets.

Our Experience working with Refugees

When our pastor asked us 4 years ago to consider being the voluntary coordinators to welcome & assist a few refugees from Burma expected to arrive in Wollongong and to come to our church, we had very little idea what it might involve. Our role is now called “Re-settler Support and Integration” coordinators, and we’ve found it to be a much bigger task than expected. But it has been very enjoyable & rewarding to work with such cheerful, conscientious and industrious people!

Our church already had a solid history of welcoming people from other nations, including Vietnamese, South and Central Americans and, more recently refugees from Sudan and West Africa. What started as a group of 3 single men from Chin state in Burma’s west in 2007 has now grown into about 80 adults and 50 children, mostly from Kayah and Kayin states in eastern Burma. Many of them had been Baptists in their own country or in the refugee camps in Thailand, where some had spent more than 20 years. Despite often very limited English, these friends began regularly attending our English services, which they’ve continued to do despite setting up their own-language services in our building.

From the outset, we realised that it was really important to encourage our existing congregation members and our new arrivals to interact together and to get to know each other better. We tried to raise awareness in the congregation of the backgrounds from which the re-settlers had come. We also attempted to give the re-settlers responsibilities and roles within the church, initially ones that did not rely on a high level of English.

There is a variety of NGO’s in our area that assist re-settlers in material ways, so we decided to focus on spiritual nurture and hospitality. The former included setting up four levels of easy English Bible studies, which are still running and popular after 2 years. We also tried to involve the children and teenagers with our Sunday school and youth group, as so many churches have seen the second generation of new arrivals lose interest and stop attending church altogether.

On the hospitality front, we’ve encouraged the Aussie congregation members to visit re-settlers & to invite them to their homes. We drew up a two-page list of tips for the Aussies to interact across cultures, and handed it out in person. We also set up a program which we call “Link a family”, which connects an Aussie family with a Burmese one of similar makeup. The Aussie family then tries to line up regular opportunities to get together, so that friendships develop. We hope that this will spread and involve larger numbers of people.

We’ve learned many lessons. One of them is that ‘integration’ is a two-way street. Both the existing congregation and the re-settlers need to work at it, and we often find both groups seem a little nervous at first. Much, but not all, of this is based on language issues. We’ve also learned that enlisting a small team is important, but this has been challenging, as everyone is already fairly busy. However, Aussie members have helped in loads of ways, including leading Bible studies, hospitality, form-filling, transport, furniture removal, etc. And we’re more convinced than ever that we must not lose the second generation, but encourage them to be part of the church’s life and of any relevant activities the church is engaged in.

One other lesson was to have a cut-off date for ongoing intensive support for re-settlers. After our friends have been more than 3 yrs in Wollongong, we have stepped back, and been encouraged to see the re-settler community developing their own support networks. It has been a real privilege to be involved closely in the lives of these lovely people. Our greatest joys have been to see our friends grow in their knowledge of the Lord, to watch as spouses and other family members are re-united after sometimes 5 years of separation, and to attend Burmese weddings. Already they are making a very positive & encouraging contribution to our church fellowship.

Andrew and Muriel