Seeking community: the church and the refugee
|Date||1 October, 2014|
“I’m not in a good situation right now.”
Daryush stares at the floor of the church hall with glazed eyes, cup in hand (two teabags, four sugars). The words slowly spill out in broken English. He had just spent the last of that fortnight’s money on antibiotics when his caseworker called. “They move me again. I have to be ready tomorrow morning. He not explain why.” Moving means leaving his only near-culture friend and finding his way in yet another neighbourhood – his fourth since arriving in Australia three years ago. Then came an email from his family in his home country. Daryush’s parents, who are strict in their faith, know he has become a believer and want nothing more to do with him. He blinks back tears. I ask what he will do now. The cup quivers. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
We still haven’t become used to the weight of stories like these, a common part of our work with asylum seekers, refugees and new migrants in Sydney’s northwest. Of course, there are the stories of cruelty and oppression we expect for asylum seekers – of torture, arrest, police brutality, religious hatred. There is the constant heartache of those who have left everything and everyone to make that perilous journey to seek safety in Australia. We expect to hear that much. What we weren’t prepared for were the ways these stories continue within our own borders.
It wasn’t so long ago that our Prime Minister launched his policy of deterrence of so-called ‘illegal’ attempts at asylum with these words: “This is our country. We determine who comes here, and the circumstances in which they come.” Since then, we’ve learned what that word ‘we’ – that tiny, yet powerful word – can mean for asylum seekers, and what it betrays about Australia’s sentiments. ‘We’ decides who comes here. ‘We’ are not obliged to assess ‘you’, accommodate ‘you’, or tolerate ‘you’. When asylum seekers, refugees and others from across the seas are so framed, the gap between settled Aussies and these unsettled others begins to widen.
For friends of ours like Daryush, that gap is only getting wider. After years in a detention centre, he was released and given permission to live ‘in community’; two years later, though, I remain his only Australian friend. When I express my surprise at this, he tells me story after story of trying to strike up conversations on trains, at the shops, or waiting for the bus. “Nobody talks to me.” He laughs. “Maybe because I’m brown. Maybe they think I’m a terrorist.” For Daryush, and for thousands more, this is the distressing irony of life ‘in community’. Surrounded by Australians, there is no-one to welcome him home, no-one to talk to over a cup of chai, no-one to show him the best picnic spots, no-one to listen. Instead, unable to meaningfully structure his days, he spends most of his time alone, thinking of a family far away and waiting, perhaps, for the phone to ring.
The church of God stands ready to resist this gap between ‘we’ and ‘you’. We ourselves live in a community carved out by the unrelenting beat of God’s heart for the unworthy; while “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), God saw fit to pursue us and to give us new life at the cost of His dear Son. ‘We’, like the refugee, could contribute little, but stood to gain so much through that love and the love of His people. And, so loved and transformed, we are now able to love and include others in the same way – not plagued by anxiety about our resources or our national security or even our awkward post-church morning-tea conversations. Instead, we are to be haunted by the stories of our spiritual ancestors (themselves a displaced people – Deut 10:18–19), by our Lord’s words of welcome for all who bear His image (Matt 25:35–40).
In our corner of this city, we’re having a crack at being this kind of welcoming church community for the asylum seekers and new migrants among us. At times, it means providing bags of groceries, mobile phone credit and other essentials, but we’ve been most surprised and encouraged by what happens when we gather around the dinner table. In this, the ministry of the roast chook and prefab pavlova, the refugee and the student can mingle with locals, and friendship and trust begins. We’ve laughed, we’ve shared, we’ve learnt new things. Occasionally, we’ve cried. Almost always, we’ve planned to meet again. And through these meals, we’ve seen people from far-off lands draw closer to the One who Himself became a refugee, if only for a little time (Matt 2:13–14).
It’s not always easy, and we are never far away from rehearsing those same tired divisions between ‘we’ and ‘you.’ But we are convinced that our commitment to both ‘word’ and ‘deed’ cannot be delegated to an NGO or a faraway mission agency. Our church – and yours – has a rich opportunity to invite refugees and new migrants into our community. Why not have a go?
Steam fogs the windows as we open the crockpots and serve up. Daryush, along with four other asylum seekers and two international students, has joined us to mark Persian New Year. There is red wine, kebabs, and even our feeble attempt at Persian rice. Many hours of comparing cultures and faiths follows. Daryush is quiet – this is meant to be a time when the pain of the old year is forgotten, though there is little chance of that when no-one knows what might happen to him tomorrow, or the day after. But, as he leaves that evening (leftovers in hand), he smiles and embraces me. “Thank-you”, he whispers. “Thanks, God, for you, my family.”
If you would like to know more about how you and your church can connect with asylum seekers, refugees or new migrants in your area, contact CultureConnect via [email protected]
The authors are Interserve Partners, serving in Australia with CultureConnect.