Welcome home

Extending hospitality to refugees

I met Kristen, a young university student, as I was serving at Welcome Home, a refugee house in Kitchener, Ontario. Part of my job is to orient our new volunteers, so I was thrilled when Kristen said she wanted to work with refugees.

Like most men and women at our volunteer training sessions, Kristen was surprised when I asked the group to remember a time they needed to start over again – in a new school, job, relationship, or geographical location. Then I asked them to think of occasions when they had been confronted with a language or culture they didn’t understand.

Kristen recalled what it was like to move from a small town to go to university. “What made the transition hard?” I asked.

Her answers began with phrases such as, “I didn’t know,” “I couldn’t find,” “I had expected,” “It was overwhelming,” “I began to question my decision….”

My second question followed: “And what made your transition easier?”

Kristen quickly responded. “Having a person who came alongside – someone who knew the ropes, talked to me, became my friend.”

New volunteers like Kristen quickly learn to search their own experiences for circumstances that will help them identify with the upheaval refugees experience, and out of that, extend practical compassion and come alongside newcomers in this period of intense transition.

Our biblical mandate

What compels us to come alongside refugees? Scripture provides us with some stirring reasons.

For example, there’s the story of God’s people, the Israelites, who were promised their own land, but due to famine were forced to take refuge in Egypt. There, they eventually became slaves. How can we forget the Exodus, when God miraculously brought the Israelites out of Egypt back to the Promised Land?

Deuteronomy is an instruction book, preparing God’s people for how to live in the Promised Land. Over and over, the Israelites are asked to pledge they will continue to follow God and obey his commands. God knows the temptation humans face: once we’re rich and fat and comfortable – no longer refugees living on manna – it’s easy to forget the Lord (Hosea 13:4–’6).

So, God asks the Israelites to remember where they’ve come from, and to demonstrate they’re his people through justice, generosity, and compassion:

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands…. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-22, emphasis added).

We were once foreigners, too

Perhaps our ancestors didn’t have as miraculous a deliverance when they came to Canada. But we suffer from the same disease that plagued the Israelites: a short memory.

Too easily, we settle into our comfortable lifestyles and believe we’re somehow entitled to all we have. We forget the perilous journey many of our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents undertook, and the difficult years of establishing themselves in Canada – making our lives of ease possible.

We forget that it is God’s grace that enables us to live here, in this way. We allow comfort to lure us away from humble, obedient responsiveness to the Lord’s voice.

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33–34, emphasis added).

God says, in effect, “You were slaves and I rescued you; now rescue others.” I believe we need the same challenge as the Israelites: remember. And when you remember, act on it to show compassion.

Hospitality in the New Testament

Jesus’ most striking words on the subject of welcoming and caring for those in need link our eternal destiny with the way we respond to others. Jesus reveals a surprising truth: when we look after those in need, we’re actually helping him:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37–40).

It’s critical that we understand and respond to Jesus’ words to “invite the stranger in.”  Another word to help us understand the concept is “hospitality.”

For me, the word hospitality evokes images of gourmet meals and a perfectly set table – and it scares me! I’d like to offer some new images, inviting all of us to a God-revealing, hospitable lifestyle, whether people like to eat what we cook, or not.

Author Christine Pohl’s study of hospitality calls it the practice of “making room.” Writer Henri Nouwen describes hospitality as creating “a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.” Making room, creating space, becoming friends – those sound much more doable to me than preparing a gourmet meal.

Welcoming strangers

What does it mean to invite a stranger in? Inviting a church visitor or neighbour over for lunch is kind, but it’s not quite what Jesus meant. According to theologian Walter Brueggemann, “Strangers are ‘people without a place’ and the resources to gain one.”

He goes on to say, “To be without a place means to be detached from basic, life-supporting institutions – family, work, polity, religious community, and to be without networks of relations that sustain and support human beings. People without a place who are also without financial resources are the most vulnerable people…. They not only lack support connections with other human beings, but they also are unable to purchase many of the basic necessities of life.”

When I read this definition of strangers, I think of the refugees with whom I work. They usually arrive in Canada traumatized, with only the clothes they’re wearing. They have little or no English, no place to live, no money, and often no networks that will sustain or support them.

The media bombards us with stories about illegal immigrants and refugees who are trying to dodge the system, and creates a climate of suspicion toward new arrivals. While there’s the occasional individual who abuses the system, the vast majority of refugees I’ve met are genuine, courageous survivors with a valid fear for their lives and strong drive to get settled. They are more than willing to gratefully contribute to this country that took them in.

The Canadian government, however, has tightened restrictions so that a shocking number of legitimate refugees are now being denied safety in Canada. I wonder how our ancestors who were welcomed by Canada would have fared in our current system. I also wonder what kind of values Canadian society will have in the future, if we continue in this direction. I wonder what Jesus will have to say about our response to these “strangers.”

Making hospitality part of our lives

Although we may agree we should offer hospitality to refugees and other strangers, it can be a challenge to fit it into our lives.

I recently met Dave, who takes annual trips with his church to serve in Mexico. He wants to build a relationship with a Latin American refugee here at home, with the side benefit of improving his Spanish. However, Dave is struggling to make it work. He said it was much easier to book off a week to serve in Mexico than to create space in his daily life for a relationship. He’s realizing that the practice of hospitality involves sacrifice of time and energy.

When individuals or families choose to do the hard work of creating space in their lives, they often find great joy in a mutually beneficial friendship. For example, Jane is a retired teacher who began to visit a fearful, newly arrived pregnant refugee named Shalom. Jane spent an hour a week sharing Jesus’ love with Shalom by helping her learn her first English words.

As Shalom’s delivery date drew near, Jane helped host a baby shower, and invited
some of her church community to help the overwhelmed mom prepare for the baby’s arrival. Gathering a layette list in English with Shalom was a learning experience in itself. Then Jane and her friends took time to find out what Shalom’s culture would expect when a newborn arrived, and explained what a baby in Canada would need to stay warm, safe, and happy.

Jane continues to have tea with Shalom and her baby, providing friendship, English practice, and grandmotherly support to this family.

Small steps

In order to share our lives with newcomers to Canada, we must first consider what we have to offer. Do we speak English? Do we know where to buy groceries and how to use a bank card? How to navigate the school or medical system? How to dress for winter? How to find a job? Do we know what’s cheap or free to do in our area? Do we have a relationship with Jesus?

I remember listening to a mother from Burma at the deli counter struggling to ask for advice, “School…lunch…my daughter…like Canadian?” I also remember meeting a Congolese couple at the dollar store asking the difference between a bridal shower, wedding shower, and wedding card. These encounters demonstrate how easy it is to be a resource to newly arrived families, just by virtue of having lived here and being open to conversation.

The first step is to look around our neighbourhood, at the grocery store, in our workplace or school. Do we see any newcomers who might need a helping hand? It’s often incredibly difficult to ask for help. Recently, I had a young lawyer in my office – a refugee who’s been in Canada for four years – who shared how lonely he still feels.

So let’s acknowledge people, be friendly, say hi, and become more aware of God-moments. We’ll be amazed at how creating a little space in our lives will indeed open the door for strangers to turn into friends.

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