The first time I heard Jesus called a refugee, I was surprised and wanted to protest – until I remembered that they were right. Jesus was a refugee. As a young toddler, he and his parents were driven from their home by the violent response of Herod to fears about a possible “king” who had been born. So they fled to Egypt until Herod died and it was safe to return.
Jesus was a refugee fleeing violence, driven from the homeland of his family, waiting to return. We are in the midst of celebrating the birth and revelation of Jesus in the world, a story that includes this exile and rings with particular poignancy in light of the refugee crisis being faced around the world today.
I am delighted with the response of so many Anglican parishes that have expressed an interest in refugee sponsorship – both before and after the release of the heart-wrenching photo of the little boy who died trying to reach a safe place to live. Anglicans across this diocese and the country have gathered support to sponsor a refugee family, offer volunteer help, join an ecumenical group sponsorship or raise financial aid. Some have joined recently in response to the photo; others have been engaged in sponsorship and refugee work for decades. This is a right and compassionate response to a global tragedy.
My own experiences of sharing in an ecumenical sponsorship group to bring three families to Canada remain important touchstones of learning and growth. For in the end, although we helped these families settle into life in Canada, the most important and most transformative aspect of this work was not in our helping them. Rather, it was the transforming of our own hearts. It was in learning to see the face of Christ in the other, the one who was different from us. It was in experiencing hospitality from those with so little. It was in confronting our own inappropriate expectations and prejudices. It was in facing the inadequacies of our governmental policies and procedures and discovering the need for prophetic actions. We were changed.
The reason we must be engaged in refugee sponsorship is certainly to offer aid to those in need. But it is also because we need to engage for our own wholeness as human beings. The Hebrew scriptures are full of admonitions to care for the other: “You shall treat the stranger who resides with you as one born among you. You shall love that one as yourself” (Lev. 19:34). Jesus was equally clear that we are to love neighbour as self, and he told a story about a stranger needing help (Luke 10:29-37). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2). Story after story highlights the truth that God works for the good of all through the encounter with foreigners – for example, Abraham and the visitor/angels; Ruth and Boaz; Rahab and the spies; Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.
Whether your parish is directly engaged in refugee sponsorship or not, I pray that you will share in meeting the stranger: volunteer with English classes; assist a refugee settlement agency; help your interfaith partners; challenge racism and prejudice; meet your neighbours and welcome them to the community. See what they can show us about ourselves and about the face of God in a new way.