Welcoming the stranger: Lessons from the refugee crisis in Europe
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35
The number of refugees entering Europe in 2015 presented United Methodist congregations with many occasions for service.
“We, who have many reasons to be grateful because we live in rather safe countries, have a new opportunity to practice Matthew 25 and to receive Christ by welcoming a stranger,” explains Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of the German Episcopal area of The United Methodist Church.
In partnership with other members of the European Methodist Council, The United Methodist Church has been seizing those opportunities in astounding ways. Members and congregations willing to take on the challenge are finding they receive at least as much as they give.
“I hear so many stories how congregations are blessed because they open hearts, minds and doors,” Wenner shares.
In the December Refugee Ministries in Europe newsletter produced by the European Methodist Council, United Methodist pastor Thomas Leßmann in Lübeck, Germany, tells the story of an economics student overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. Comparing the great need to the limited resources available, he told Leßmann that it might be time to turn some refugees away.
The next day, the student attended a worship service where a refugee told the story of how she came to Germany.
She was originally from Eritrea in Africa where she lived with her mother, father, brother, and sister. The family moved to Ethiopia as refugees after her father died fighting for the Eritrea army when she was just three. When her brother was arrested by Ethiopian authorities, her family began to feel unsafe there, and moved to Sudan.
Soon, civil war broke out in Sudan and family was mistreated, threatened, robbed, and her sister was raped.
Her mother encouraged her to move again, this time to Libya where she worked for two years, saving money for the trip to Germany. She was now safe, but living as a stranger in a strange land apart from her family.
Two weeks after that worship service, Leßmann called that economics student, who was at a football game with refugees. This student, who only days earlier had wondered about rejecting those seeking asylum, had formed a group that invites refugees to local cultural events.
Processing stories like this through the lens of Scripture, Wenner reminds us of “the many feeding stories in the New Testament that tell us that little, blessed by Christ, feeds crowds of people.”
Gathering around one table
“Because of the new neighbors,” Wenner explains, “congregations get a clear sense of the Christian call to create tables of hospitality where strangers become friends.”
The Rev. Susanne Niessner-Brose of Erlöserkirche (Church of the Redeemer) United Methodist Church in Bremen, Germany talks about some of her congregation’s “efforts to integrate refugees coming to Germany.”
In October, they began a series of gatherings to introduce people to the basics of the Christian faith. They had done this twice before, “But this time it was different,” Niessner-Brose reports. “It was held in three different languages: German, Farsi and Arabic.”
People from Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, China and Germany—many of them refugees—attended the weekly sessions that each began with a meal together. Coptic Christians from Egypt, Orthodox Christians from Syria, and several Iranians who had no real sense of Christianity, gathered at one table before separating to hear the weekly lesson in their own language.
Six of the Iranians became members of the United Methodist congregation at the conclusion of the course. “They are still not capable of explaining in detail who John Wesley was, but they certainly experienced Christ as the living love of God,” the pastor explains.
“For many of us,” Wenner notes, “interreligious encounters are quite new and we are scared. But don’t we believe that faith conquers the world?” she says, referring to 1 John 5:4 which reads in part, “this is the victory that has defeated the world: our faith” (CEB).
The Reverend Rolf Held is the pastor of a rural United Methodist church in Messstetten, Germany. The town, whose population was about 6,000, has received more than 3,500 Syrian refugees.
Held reports in an interview with the United Methodist Committee on Relief that while there was some initial resistance, “Most of the people in town just asked questions like, ‘How are we going to take care of the kids? Do they have a place to play in? Can we take them out for little trips to the woods to show them the country they’ve come into?’”
The results have been life affirming. “Children who couldn’t play in Syria because of the firing, the bombs, and everything,” he says, “are unconcerned here. They are playing like children should play.” (Watch Held’s full interview from the United Methodist Committee on Relief).
“Reaching out to migrants and to those people who are afraid of them, is a peace building work in our neighborhoods,” Wenner teaches. “In my Christmas message I tell people: ‘Those who come to baby Jesus in the manger will meet refugees and other people in need on their way!’”
The Christmas story tells of God’s love for the least, the lost, the strangers and those who welcome them. Mary placed Jesus in a manger because there was no room from him and his family inside the house. When the king threatened children, Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus left Israel and lived in Egypt as strangers until King Herod died and an angel told Joseph it was safe to return home.
Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 reminds us that whenever we welcome the stranger, we welcome him.
At the conclusion of the December Refugee Ministries in Europe newsletter, Bishop Wenner includes this benediction, “Let us continue to pray and to work for peace and to see the face of Christ in any single person who crosses our path as a stranger.”