Refugees – Blessing or burden?

Thinking back to a conversation I had with two other Christians about the Home Office’s approach to processing asylum claims, I was struck again by how much our perception of the asylum system is shaped by our view of asylum seekers themselves.

If I think that asylum seekers are very likely to be fake, just here as economic migrants and if I think that they bring little of value in terms of gifts skills and character perceiving them as potential benefits scroungers and even possibly terrorists then I am likely to see any system no matter how harsh and hostile that reduces the likelihood of asylum seekers coming here positively. I am likely to expect asylum seekers to have to prove themselves. 

If generally speaking, I see asylum seekers as genuine, if I also view them as often highly talented and motivated then I am likely to be suspicious of and frustrated by a system that comes across as slow, bureaucratic and hostile. 

So, the big question is “Do I see asylum seekers as a blessing or a burden.”  As a Christian and as a church leader, I see them as a blessing.  Why?  Well first of all, there is experience.  Our church’s first engagement with asylum seekers started well before I came to work for them.  A man had turned up in fear of his life, eventually with help, he was linked up with a brilliant lawyer, his family were able to join him and he was given leave to remain. When at the end of the process, the family had to move elsewhere, the church was genuinely deeply saddened to lose them.  Over the time I have been in Bearwood, this family have occasionally dropped in to visit on a Sunday. When they do, the delight to see them and the love for them is obvious.

A few years back, we had another asylum seeker turn up and with help from another local church and members of our congregation, he has developed a ministry amongst needy people and planted a new multi-cultural church. 

Walking with refugees is not always easy. First of all, they come with real needs that seem to overwhelm.  Secondly, just like any other human being they bring normal pastoral challenges.  However, I think the biggest challenge is knowing that you are going to have a deep, intense relationship with people who will become very much part of your family whilst knowing at some point they will move on. Hopefully, this is because they have got leave to remain but sadly have to move for housing. Tragically, there is a good chance that it is because they have been returned to their home country where they face further persecution and even death.

So, I don’t want you to view welcoming refugees with rose tinted glasses but I do want you to see it as a blessing. There have been tears, there have been nights interrupted by desperate phone calls. However, constantly we have been blessed.

  • We have seen people clearly put their trust in Christ
  • We have seen refugees engage in Gospel witness reaching people and contexts we never could and bringing glory to God.
  • We have learnt more about what it means to trust God even through dark days.

Secondly, I think that seeing refugees as a blessing is underpinned by Biblical theology.  Deuteronomy 26:5-9 says this:

“And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labour. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror,[a] with signs and wonders.”[1]

When God’s people arrived in the land of Canaan and celebrated God’s goodness, they did so remembering that their original ancestor, Abraham had been a migrant from Ur, he had left a settled city and arrived in a land where he was a stranger without roots or property.  However God had promised him that he was blessed and others would be blessed through him.

The sense of being a refugee was therefore in the DNA of God’s people. They had spent many years in exile from home, they had experienced brutal persecution and then they had to flee this. God had rescued them.  Later they would face further exile and persecution.  This is not just something applied to Israel though. The New Testament writers (see especially 1 Peter) pick up on the imagery of God’s people as scattered exiles, often in physical reality as well as spiritually. 

In other words, it is in our DNA that we are a refugee people. And yet, even in that state, again and again, the Bible reminds us that we are both blessed by God and a blessing to others.  Wherever we find ourselves we bring the blessing of the Gospel.

Because this sense of being a refugee people was and is in the DNA of God’s people, it has implications for our attitude to others. In the Old Testament, it meant that Israel were to welcome and care for the foreigners in their midst.  Christians today are meant to be welcoming -first of all because we have known God’s grace we are to share this good news with others. Their first need is to find refuge from the kingdom of darkness. But secondly, there is I believe an implicit follow on which is that we should be naturally welcoming to people of all backgrounds.

In welcoming others, including refugees I believe that we discover that we can be a blessing to them but they are also, so often a blessing to us. We receive back much more than we ever give.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:5-8.

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