Welcoming the Refugee

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.         -1 Peter 4:7-10

A few weeks ago I attended a free seminar that quite honestly I had no idea why I had signed up for it. Even that day I tried to think of every way to get out of it or just not show up. But something, (or more like someone!) kept nudging me to go. It turned out to be for a reason other than the actual seminar itself, but for a connection that would happen rather quickly with another man as he was signing in right as I was.

That connection that day, led to getting together for coffee this week, to hear more of his story. It was funny too that as we were leaving, I said to him, “I had no idea why I was going to that seminar, but I now I know why…it was to meet you,” to which he replied, “I thought the exact same thing that day, until I met you!”

His story was remarkable. He is Egyptian and moved to the US about six years ago. He did not want to come and even despite all he went through, resisted coming even though He sensed the Lord calling him to come, otherwise he or his family would have wound up dead. They were being followed, harassed, interrogated and literally threatened with death due to being a Christian with a high profile. He would appear on TV because of his successful business; but was also involved with Christian ministry in Egypt. That got him on the radar and made him a “threat.”

This was during the period before, during and slightly after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, which many of us might have seen or read about in the news. He talked of how during that time they lived right in the middle of all that chaos, constantly hearing tanks firing in the streets and knowing many people killed, even vanishing with no trace. At the same time he was being wire-tapped and followed everywhere. One wrong move for a period of six months would have gotten him killed. And yet, he would have stayed in his homeland, had it not been for the Lord convincing him it was time to leave.

So, he came to the US and will become a citizen this year. But what is sad is that he hasn’t found a very welcoming attitude towards him as an Arab immigrant in the US. Even more tragic is that I am speaking of this attitude in churches and among Christians. At first, many churches and Christians were eager to hear his story, but his message about being hospitable to the “stranger,” building relationships, and not being afraid of refugees and immigrants etc, was not welcomed.

Even in the middle of speaking along these lines, the missions pastor of his own church, a good friend of his, stood up while he was speaking, cut him off and declared that it was not Biblical to do ministry in the context of “undefined relationship” outside of “church programs.” He was simply talking about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves and how when engaging with Arab or Muslim people, you must show you genuinely care about them in a relational way. Sounds pretty Biblical to me, but the reality is much of the church has exalted and substituted programs over relationships, as if this is “real ministry.”

Slowly, he began to not be asked back to churches and to speak, as he challenged the fear of the “stranger” and genuine relationships with Arab/Muslim people. And yet, as he pointed out, if anyone had reason to fear, it was he and his family who faced real harassment and threats of death, not just the “fear of it.” For him, it was a present reality not a future “possibility.” When the Egyptian secret police threaten someone with death, it is followed through 90% of the time!

As he talked I couldn’t help but think, here is a brother in Christ who should be treated as a hero; yet he is feeling isolated and alone! At the same time it was a highlight of my week to be in a position where he could openly share with a new friend and feel encouraged and to know he is not alone. I invited him to a coalition I have been hosting through the mission organization I lead, with other like-minded mission agencies and people, in an attempt to try to speak into the fear, misinformation, even prejudice towards refugees among Christians; while calling the church to positive action in showing hospitality and serving refugees/immigrants here and around the world.

But this conversation made me saddened again by much of the rhetoric and deeply held attitudes towards immigrants and refugees. Don’t misunderstand me; I believe policy has it’s place to protect citizens, but the overwhelming majority of refugees fleeing their countries have not wanted to leave their homeland, and have been leaving due to persecution while facing great suffering and loss along the way.

If anyone should be showing hospitality, regardless of political beliefs, it is Christians who claim to follow Jesus; the One who Himself was a refugee, forced to flee a bloodbath as a vulnerable child, and whose people have often been refugees, persecuted and forced to flee their homes. We are even called “aliens” and “strangers”, as this world in it’s present fallen form is not our true home. Our true citizenship is in heaven! We too are “refugee’s” looking and longing for our true eternal home.

In addition, let me make this strong but biblically true statement. Our attitude towards, and how we treat refugees, says an awful lot about our relationship with God; a God who often comes as a “stranger” and is pretty sensitive to how we treat the “stranger.” (Matthew 25).  There is an excellent new book I just read, called “God is Stranger.” It is about how God’s people often encountered God when they themselves were “strangers”; and how God often appeared to his people as a “stranger.” Linked to that is practical application of how God’s promises and blessing in our lives can be tied to these two truths and our attitude towards the “stranger.”

And yet, there is a very clear problem in this area in the Western Christian world. In fact, sometimes I am amazed at how much of our “Christianity” is really just cultural, political and fear-based, verse truly biblical and Christ-like. And if anything needs restored in the Western church today it is hospitality. Even for those we “know”, who we go to church services with week in and week out, we are often still “strangers” to each other, never really getting to know each other in a real, authentic, guards-down, Biblical fellowship kind of way.

So what is the issue? I am convinced that the issue is something the Holy Spirit highlighted to me early on when I was called to ministry. He showed me even then, that the number one issue I would face in my own life and in the lives of those I would minister too would be fear. At the time, I didn’t see that or believe that would be the number one issue. And yet, as the years have gone by that has proven more and more true.

Fear causes us to react emotionally instead of biblically. Fear is the opposite of faith. And fear has clearly gripped many hearts, paralyzed many lives and is distorting our perception in many ways. For example, while we all have been alerted to “stranger” danger, it is alarming but enlightening to note that most of the abuse, assault, and homicide that occurs in the US is not from random “strangers” but those we think are not “strangers”; ie…family and friends. Yet because we are more “familiar” with those we perceive “safe” we “feel” safer even if statistically it is not true.

Please understand that I am not advocating we throw away all discernment. Compassion and discernment do not need to be an either/or thing. Jesus himself said we are to be as shrewd as serpents and yet as innocent as doves. There are wolves among the sheep; but let’s remember that there are more sheep than wolves and those sheep are fleeing the same wolves we fear.

Also, consider this. For all the rhetoric and fear I hear, I wonder how many actual refugee or immigrant families the same people speaking like this, have taken time to personally get to know and pray for? It is easy to make this a political stance when void of personal relationship and prayer. And many of these “refugees” are in fact our Christian brothers and sisters! For the others who are not yet, why not make that a matter of personal prayer instead of passionate political statements that isolate and hurt the witness of God’s people, instead of attract people to the beauty of Jesus?

In addition, for all the “negative” stories that might be reported in the news, there are thousands of other untold stories of how so many are encountering Jesus, coming to faith in Him, or hearing of Him and his love for them for the first time. Christians have been praying for those in the “10/40 window” for a long time, and these are some of the very people in these closed/least reached countries that are now coming to us. And yet, as my friend pointed out in a baffled way; now we don’t want them! Instead of seeing this as a kingdom opportunity, we are view it as a national, political, cultural, personal headache.

I want to propose as I advocate for the refugee, that much of our fear, though real, is irrational. And much of our current response to this issue is being driven by emotion, not biblical exhortation. We are diminishing this to a mere political stance rather than realizing these are real people we are talking about. How would you feel if you were in their shoes? How would the current rhetoric spewed on social media or attitude even within churches and among Christians make you feel?

Government is responsible for the safety of it’s citizens. Policy and laws have their place in every country. But as Christians we have a higher law and standard; a law and standard of love. It is so radical and counter-cultural to the American way, that it even says that if it does happen to come down to it, living a life of service is to be a greater priority than our own personal safety. Do we trust a Sovereign God or worship the golden calf of comfortable Christianity?

Yes, be wise, but heaven-forbid we not show the compassion of our Savior to refugees, immigrants and strangers. Of all people, we as Christians, even as American’s, should be the most hospitable.

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.-Hebrews 13:2

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