This week is Refugee Week: a week-long festival celebrating the contribution, creativity, and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. Refugee weeks says its vision is
for refugees and asylum seekers to be able to live safely within inclusive and resilient communities, where they can continue to make a valuable contribution.
Churches have a role to play in creating communities where refugees not only feel welcome, but play a fundamental and valued role. As churches, we want to see a society which welcomes the stranger: a world where people are treated with decency and dignity whatever our immigration policies.
The instruction in Leviticus to welcome the stranger with compassion is one of many instances in the Bible where God’s people are told to create welcoming environments in our countries and communities:
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.Leviticus 19:33-34
This call goes beyond simply creating a welcoming environment for the foreigner in our land. It asks us to establish a parity between how we treat our ‘native-born’ and those new to our country, to the point where a distinction cannot be made between how we value and treat the two groups. The verse acknowledges that the idea of being a ‘foreigner’ is fluid and subjective: ‘you were foreigners in Egypt.’
This verse is one of countless moments in the Bible which ask us to go beyond the bare minimum. It asks us not just to be civil to newcomers in our land, including refugees, but to radically re-engage with the world by inviting those same people into the heart of our communities. Refugee Week aims to celebrate and lift up the contribution of refugees as integrated and vital parts of our collective communities, and it is a message which, as churches, we should welcome.
The theme of Refugee Week this year is ‘We Cannot Walk Alone.’ It’s a line taken from Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech: ‘They [White people] have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.’ It is a theme which acknowledges that our journey is shared with refugees, and that our communities are interconnected and inextricably linked. Just like the instruction in Leviticus to break down the barriers between the ‘foreigner’ and the ‘native-born’, Luther King’s invitation is one which acknowledges shared journey and shared interests.
This is not to say that we should try to erase the variety of experiences which different people bring to our communities. Treating refugees with the same respect and compassion that we treat the ‘native-born’ in our communities doesn’t mean ignoring the trauma of displacement or expecting refugees to fit into the mould of those born and brought up in our local community. Diversity and difference enrich our communities and our churches. But extending the hand of welcome to the stranger, and inviting them to join our communities as active and appreciated participants, is vital to starting to break down the artificial boundaries so often thrown up between refugees and the communities where they settle.
Recently, we have been shocked by the way new policies outlined by the government (in the New Plan for Immigration) stand contrary to this vision. They establish a two-tier system, perpetuating damaging attitudes towards those seeking sanctuary and forcing thousands of families in need into isolation and destitution.
As these ideas are legislated for in the new Sovereign Borders Bill, our calling to welcome the stranger must be taken ever more seriously. We are called to celebrate diversity, welcome enthusiastically and speak loudly against injustice.
This week, we will be praying for displaced people and refugees alongside Christians all over the world. We will be praying for safe refuge and for sure foundations, and we will also be praying that our churches might lead the way in opening up our communities to newcomers, showing God’s love to the stranger, and ultimately inviting them into the heart of our country as valued and vital members of our communities.
A prayer for Refugee Week 2021
Lord, in this Refugee Week, we lift up to you all who are escaping war, persecution, or natural disaster.
Would you comfort, empower and protect them,
drawing alongside them all who can assure them of their infinite worth.
And would you bless us with discomfort and a sense of separation from you,
until we invite the stranger in and discover you in our midst.