'I will shake all nations'
How Baptists are responding to the refugee crisis filled the Assembly's mid-afternoon session - and people’s stories were weaved throughout
The session began with a short film highlighting how Baptists in Lebanon have responded. It featured the story of Ali, a taxi driver from Aleppo. His family were ‘happy, quite well off,’ he said, ‘then we had to flee the bombings, deaths and terrorists.’ Ali and his family are among the 1.2m Syrians in Lebanon.
The film showed how churches supported by BMS are providing vital food parcels to the Syrians, and how one has set up a school. More than 200,000 people don’t have school places in Lebanon, and desperately want to go. The school now teaches 300 children, and ‘has given an escape from the war,’ one parent said.
The challenges facing Syria’s refugees are huge, but through relief and education, together we can make a difference, the film stated, finishing with Ali saying thank you, first in Arabic, then English.
(For more on the BMS Syria’s Forgotten Families appeal, visit https://www.bmsworldmission.org/appeal/syrias-forgotten-families)
Mary Taylor, Regional Minister in the Yorkshire Baptist Association, highlighted some of the different, real-life journeys refugees had made. She began by speaking about the kind of journey we have become familiar with in the last year – someone attempting to reach Greece in a boat, and then move through Europe to Calais.
The story highlighted both the desperation and vulnerability of those making that journey. The person she quoted needed three attempts to reach Greece, the second of which had resulted in the flimsy boat capsizing. ‘I was picked from the water, but not all were. That terrible memory was with me for my third successful journey.’ Uprooted by war, having spent so long in the refugee camps, the person travelled through Europe ‘cold, wet, frightened’, not knowing at any stage of the journey what would be happening next.
Though this story has become familiar, Mary continued, people have been arriving on our shores seeking refuge in increasing numbers since 2001. She spoke of people welcomed by Wakefield Baptist Church, and the personal, human impact it had.
‘Often asylum seekers are portrayed as scroungers, terrorists. The truth is behind every asylum seeker is a human story. They were strangers, strangers God commanded me to care for; they are also the neighbours I am learning to love as myself.’
Tony Peck, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation, highlighted how Baptists are responding across the region to the refugee situation. The EBF has mapped those responses
. But whether in Lebanon or Jordan, or makeshift encampments springing up in Greece, the ‘very human cost of this crisis is seen in faces of individual refugees, particularly the unaccompanied children.
‘Imagine their fear, when they have no idea what welcome they will receive.’
Among the many stories he highlighted was the response of Croatian Baptists. Many had been refugees in the Balkan war 20 years previously, and therefore felt empathy as people began to stream through their country. Though a small Baptist Union, in a short time they ‘effectively mobilised’: they set up a well organised camp for the many passing through their country, which at its peak was 5000 people every 48 hours. They extended a welcome, particularly a hand of friendship.
In time the train border crossing closed, which increased the number of people stranded in Greece. Having worked with so many, the Croatian Baptists had an even more powerful call to help – and can now be found in Idomeni camp in Greece, where ‘the conditions are truly terrible.’
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for more on the refugee ministry of Croatia Baptist Aid.)
Destroying the myth - thoughts from a day in Calais
Rhaea Russell-Cartwright, a member of John Bunyan Baptist Church in Oxford, spoke of a visit to the camp often referred to as the jungle in Calais. In fact she said, the first myth to destroy is the use of the word jungle. There was both an overwhelming sense of calmness when she visited, and a sense of community there. There was humour – one sign stated: ‘Didn’t make it to England? – keep calm come to an English class.'
Despite this there was a sadness, and the sense that the place is a ticking time-bomb, continued Rhaea. Though the mainstream media was correct to state that the majority of the camp were mainly young men, there was a ‘complete disregard for those who’ve had their livelihoods turned upside down.’ There was a loss of dignity of the transition from being a breadwinner to now being trapped. A telling piece of graffiti stated: ‘The evil UK is happy to let the jungle exist.’
Simon Jones, minister of Bromley Baptist Church, helped to give a biblical perspective to the situation. He said the plight of the people in Calais was similar to those exiled in Babylon, and his instinct was to go and see what was happening. Simon has been visiting since October.
With humanitarian assistance being organised, it soon became apparent there was a need for peacemaking presence in the camp, said he continued. Peaceful Borders was born: Simon with two others seek to maintain relationships in the camp, as well as being a sounding board for the volunteers.
He said some people say he takes God into the jungle. ‘No,’ said Simon, ‘he’s already there and when I turn up he says “glad to see you”.’
It was Jeremiah’s hope that those driven into exile would find a place of fruitful encounter – that they would find something of the shalom of God. This has been demonstrated in people like Samir, a Muslim man, who organises communal eating, said Simon. He believes people who share the same table don’t want to fight each other.
Simon also shared the story of Iranian men who went on a hunger strike recently to protest the conditions of the camp and forced evictions. Simon prayed with the men when Lynn Green visited the camp. They offered them the chance to have their asylum applications fast-tracked, even to get assistance to apply for asylum in the United Kingdom, if they gave up their protest. They refused, saying they weren’t doing it for themselves, but for everyone in the jungle.
Later they heard the prefect's office had decided that it would not proceed with the destruction of the northern part of the camp.
Reflecting on the 1 Corinthians 1:27 verse which states that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”, Simon said, ‘Did powerless Iranian exiles bring a case of shalom to the camp? I believe they did.'
Following these presentations delegates were invited to gather in small groups to discuss the following questions:
What does it mean to seek the welfare of the place where we are?
How will we allow exiles to seek our welfare?
What will we do for the exiles in Calais and elsewhere in Europe to ensure their welfare?
Volunteer to go?
Lynn Green and David Kerrigan then introduced a shared commitment to refugees, which would be made in the subsequent session
. Lynn said a number of themes had emerged during the presentations and discussions:
'There's the theme of partnership and solidarity. We realise our island perspective, yet want to identify with the upheaval and human suffering
'There’s also this theme about the negative narrative of the refugees we see in the press. Challenging these can make us unpopular. We seek to be Kingdom people – counter cultural. Facing our fears about what we might have to let go of.
'Another key theme is the complexity – what drives people to those repeated attempts? Don’t I want the best for my family?
'There’s also this sense of God shaking the nation – God is working through this – what does that mean?
Then there’s this sense of lament, anger, and frustration.
Together Lynn and David explained the biblical roots that underpinned the words in the commitment; the theme of welcoming the stranger; caring for the least of these (Matthew 25: 34-46); God shaking the nations (Haggai 2:6-7) and being reminded of God's justice (Amos).
We stand together and we stand with those who would welcome the stranger
Prayers of intercession
And we stand in common humanity with those who some would call stranger
We recognise the cost to us of building communities of refuge
But dare to believe that the values of God’s Kingdom are of greater worth
We celebrate the courage of those who come seeking refuge, acknowledging our common humanity and believe that God is at work within us
And we will seek God’s purposes even in the midst of human chaos and tragedy
We long for a different story; defined by justice and mercy
We place self-interest aside and will live as citizens of heaven in the midst of this earthly story
, which were based on the Lord's Prayer, were led by Wale Hudson-Roberts.