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.

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