by Aaron White, 24/7 Prayer Canada
Jesus is in the caravan.
It is 2020, and life is as hard for migrants, refugees, and displaced people as it has ever been. Borders are closed, agencies are hard-pressed to help, and even our neighbours are suspected of being dangerous to us, let alone strangers from other lands. Politicians continue to inflame fears against foreigners and refugees to provoke anger against their political foes, especially during the election season.
We tend to pay attention when things are sensationalised or politicised, but then our attention moves on to other things. But refugees are not political leverage or media fodder.
The stories of the millions of internally displaced persons and asylum seekers all around the world story haven’t ended just because our attention has been diverted. Each displaced person is a beloved child of God, made in His image, intimately known.
And Jesus is present with them.
Advent is a time in the Christian calendar when we remember the incarnation of Jesus and prepare for his return. The story of Jesus’ birth - well-worn through Nativity plays, Christmas carols, and seasonal television specials - seems overly-familiar. But perhaps the actual Biblical story is less familiar to us than we think.
If we celebrate the forced journey of Jesus’ family from Nazareth to Bethlehem; sing about mysterious wise men from the East causing political unrest in Jerusalem; and read about the violent policy that forced the holy family to escape to another land; but fail to see how this might connect to the 79.5 million displaced people in our world today, then perhaps we really haven’t understood the story as well as we should.
Scripture is consistent in its view of how the people of God are to receive orphans, widows, and strangers. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers..." (Heb 13:2) "God executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." (Deut 10:18-19)
Jesus became the ultimate sojourner, taking on human flesh not in comfort and security but under threat and displacement. If we can believe that Jesus is present in our worship services and around our family tables, then we must be able to imagine Jesus on the road with people who have lost everything, a situation Jesus and his family knew first-hand.
Mary and Joseph sought shelter when they arrived in Bethlehem for the birth. People from all over the world are still looking for shelter and welcome as they arrive in our communities at increasing rates. There are things we can do to receive them well.
Rebecca Swarbrick, Grace United Church, Chelsea, QC
On a cold and damp Sunday afternoon, our family and others from Grace United Church set out on our prayer walk for refugees. None of us knew what to expect. The kids wanted to run and enjoy the trail, the rain wanted to let loose, we had to remember to stay socially distanced, yet we were given the time to stop and pray, to learn and remember.
There were times of laughter, chatter and silence, enjoying the fall colours, making new friends and getting to know acquaintances. Though it was difficult to walk through and consider the lives of refugees spread across the world, we did so together and were glad to focus on something beyond our four walls.
We took turns reading the points for prayer at each kilometre. A particular powerful moment was when Nancy, who leads the children’s work at church, found her voice breaking as she read the statistics for the amount of refugees per country in recent years. We stood in silence, staggered by the stark reality we were faced with. Even our children stopped rushing ahead and stood quietly to listen!
It was the first time many of us had seen each other since the lock down began in March. We were used to seeing each other’s faces at our Sunday services online, but to be together in person to walk for a purpose and raise money for such a life-giving organisation like IAFR, was so wonderful. The following week such gatherings were prohibited; the timing was perfect.
Did You Know?
This past August, 24-7 Prayer Canada invited churches and individuals across the country to a 10 KM Prayer Walk for Refuge, raising funds for IAFR Canada's ministry with refugees. Over $8000 was raised by more than 20 groups! We are so grateful to each one who walked and each one who is helping refugees by sponsoring them.
If you would like to pray for refugees while you practice social distancing this winter, here is the guide that was shared with participants, with a prayer point for each km you walk.
A few years ago, my family and I were gathered around a table with refugees from around the world. We ate spicy peanut stew served over rice and passed naan bread to one another as people shared where they were from. We had recently returned from a trip to Bogotá, and the conversation quickly pivoted to “who had traveled through Colombia?” To my surprise, an East African man sitting to my right ruefully smiled and recalled having taken the “scenic route” from Somalia to Brazil, trekking north through the wilderness of South America. Something in his eyes told me this was no Che Guevara Motorcycle Diaries trip across the continent, but a voyage to be endured for the promise of the destination.
When I’d explored Colombia, I saw it as a tourist, from behind the windows of a hired car. As we drove through the coffee and banana plantations and I watched the mist lift in the mountain valleys, I thought to myself how much I’d like to get out of the car and explore the rivers and mountains of this wild and beautiful country. Sadly, the frequent military checkpoints in rural areas reminded me that the F.A.R.C. controlled the countryside and it was no place for tourists to go wandering. I could not have imagined that besides activities of the revolutionary armed forces, smugglers led groups of migrants beneath the verdant green canopy of the jungle. How strange that I yearned to hike in that wild land, while on those unknown paths, thousands would have gladly taken my seat in our sightseeing van, safe from mosquitoes, bandits, rain…
Here at home, my east Hamilton neighbourhood abuts an ancient indigenous footpath that stretches from Queenston to Tobermory. In minutes I am connected with nature, sheltered in an urban forest, steps from my home. For these past six months, in a world where much is uncertain, the forest has been a sanctuary. I have to wonder how many others have found solace in nature, too.
And yet, I also wonder how many would-be asylum seekers are right now literally in the wilderness not by choice.
How many people ventured on an uncertain journey knowing there would be periods of time in the wilderness and now find themselves trapped in countries far from home and far from their final destinations? Maybe, like my East African dinner companion, they find themselves sheltering alongside a river in the jungles of Colombia. Maybe the danger they knew they might encounter has become a constant companion. Maybe the mosquitos, bandits and rain have them wondering “how long?”
For the past two months, while COVID has closed borders around the world, trapping people in limbo, we’ve challenged ourselves as a family to hike two hundred kilometres in the Ride for Refuge, to raise money for Open Homes Hamilton, a program of IAFR Canada. This multi-church network supports refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality.
As we hiked, and breathed in the fresh, crisp air of a Canadian autumn, I prayed that those walking through other wildernesses, maybe hostile ones, would someday have the opportunity to find refuge here. I prayed they would someday be able to walk a footpath that meanders, without the burden of their meager belongings weighing them down. I prayed that their lives would settle, and they would gain a new appreciation of the natural world, even grow to love and protect it as their families put down roots in a new land.
For the men and women at that table years ago, I hope that after crisscrossing oceans and rainforests, continents and borders, they can find refuge in nature as they’ve found refuge in Canada. God Bless.
There are certain rare places that you visit, places that when you leave you immediately start dreaming about going back. Lebanon is such a place.
I don’t know why it is so fascinating to me, but I do know that I am not alone. Many other people I have met who have traveled to Lebanon likewise dream of visiting again someday. And this story is not new. For centuries Lebanon has been recognized as an example to which others can aspire. Throughout the Bible there are numerous passages extolling Lebanon’s beauty and superiority.
One example comes from the Song of Songs, wherein both poetic wooers at various times refer to Lebanon:
He: “Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon” (Song of Songs 4:11).
Herein is an ancient key to Lebanon’s specialness. Lebanon’s fabled trees, and the beauty and splendor they represent inspired Biblical kings, prophets and builders. I suggest that these intrinsic qualities remain today, and that Lebanon remains a place of inspiration, history and worth. It is something ordained, something spiritual. It is like there is an ancient blessing, and despite all the woes this country has faced, it retains its God-given power and beauty.
Today Lebanon remains an enticing place. This could be thanks to the food or the culture. Or, it could be because of the people. Lebanese people are warm, laid back and welcoming. In a country of 4 million people, for the past 6 or so years, Lebanon has hosted approximately 1 million Syrian refugees – Syria, the same country that occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2005. In a world where nations are increasingly closing their doors to people fleeing from violence and persecution, Lebanon has been a refuge for Syrians, as well as refugees from other nations, including Palestinian refugees that have been there for generations. While the situation is far from perfect, and sometimes there is resentment, many Lebanese, including churches, have gone out of their way to care for the foreigners in their midst.
Crisis in Lebanon
A month ago, a number of friends and partners met on Zoom to pray for Lebanon. We prayed that God would help Lebanon through the political upheaval and corruption it has faced, the massive economic collapse that was paralyzing the country, as well as the challenges of COVID19. Lebanon seemed to us to be going through an almost Job-like experience with one tragedy piling on top of the next, each making the other harder to deal with or solve.
We prayed for an end to all of the struggles Lebanon was facing, and for positive steps towards a renewed future. And then, only one week later, came the explosion in Beirut that rocked the city and shocked the world. A Lebanese friend of mine in Toronto spoke to her aunt in Beirut over the phone: “Beirut is gone!” she cried, “Beirut is gone!”
A country already struggling to put food on everyone’s table was suddenly struck with the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding its capital city. This explosion, a result of the same corruption and ineptitude that had been already hurting so many, now created a situation that no one really knew (or knows) how they would get through. Since then the government has officially resigned, and who knows what will fill the vacuum?
Consider Jesus’ first encounter with his followers after his resurrection. Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus’ tomb is empty, and then goes and tells the disciples. Peter and John come running to see, confirm that there is indeed no body, and then leave and go back to where they were staying. Mary on the other hand, stays at the tomb and cries. Then this happens:
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
Mary was the very first human to encounter the risen Christ. Peter and John didn’t know it yet, at least not for sure. But Mary heard Jesus gently say her name. Why? I believe it is because she didn’t rush on to the next thing. Instead, for a while, she sat and cried.
Every day there is something to capture our attention. A new injustice, a new conflict in the world, a new abuse of power, a new controversy. And, to be clear, many of these news items are legitimately worth our attention. But the truth is that they are just too frequent, too substantial, too overwhelming.
My heart's challenge this month has been to
-stay with Lebanon for a while
-to cry for a while
-to listen, to wait, to sit.
Mary did this, and she experienced resurrection.
Join me in praying for Lebanon's resurrection. It is, after all, a beautiful and wonderful place, filled with history and tragedy, worth re-visiting.
Rob Perry is IAFR Canada's Director of Operations. He is the project lead for emerging refugee initiatives and as you can tell, can't wait to be able to travel to Lebanon again.
Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan lives on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples in Hamilton, Ontario. She leads Open Homes Hamilton, a ministry of IAFR Canada that brings churches together to support newly arrived refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality.
Our vision is to help people survive and recover from forced displacement. We do this together with the church, both globally, and locally in Canada.