OUR MINISTRY TO REFUGEES: ‘My only memory is war’

By Aaron Thomas

“In front of us was the Turkish border, and their soldiers were shooting at any refugees they could see. Behind us, we had ISIS,” said “M,” a Syrian refugee describing his flight from Syria and attempt to sneak across the Turkey border.

“This is what the media doesn’t show,” he continued. “The media shows people coming over on boats. The hardest part is getting out of Syria because Turkish soldiers are shooting at anyone trying to cross their border, and ISIS will kill us if we go back. One night, a woman and her baby running next to me were shot and killed. I hid with a group of people for 15 days before we were able to sneak across the border.”

At a Greek church on my church’s trip last May, we sat with families who were made up of women and children. Of the four families, three of the fathers had been killed. Becky, one of our team members, described a widow’s reaction to being asked about her husband: “Her posture changed to a slumped forward position, almost as if fluid was draining out of her and causing her to lose the ability to sit up. She spent quite a few minutes in this position with her hand on her chin, holding her upper body up.”

Aaron Thomas speaks with “D”—a 10-year-old Afghan refugee—at a local church in Greece in May 2016. A Restore Church team spent a few hours there each day having lunch, teaching English lessons, and playing games with kids.

“D,” a 10-year-old Afghan boy, is learning English, so Becky and I tried to think of essay topics he could use to practice his writing.

“Write about your favorite memory from your childhood,” I said.

After thinking for a few seconds, he shrugged and said, “My only memory is war.”

The devastation these families are experiencing is total: physical, emotional, and spiritual. They fled their home countries because they were being hunted, bombed, and murdered only to arrive elsewhere and be viewed as a suspicious problem. Every fiber of dignity and worth has been taken from them. In every way, they are experiencing hell on earth. And as Christians who believe in the vision of the Lord’s Prayer and of Heaven coming to earth, we had to get involved.

Haunting Image

In early September 2015, the world was haunted by the image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body had washed up on a beach. His name was Aylan. As the parents of three young boys, my wife, Karrie, and I were haunted, and so were many others. Amy, a friend and Restore Church leader, texted me about it. She recalled thinking, These are my children, they’re hurting. Do something! Another Restore member, Kelly, was the first to contact me and suggest a church response.

Kelly wrote this in her journal on September 5, 2015:

Once my eyes were opened to this ongoing tragedy I felt helpless as an individual, but felt some hope in joining together with others who were feeling the same way, wanting to do something, but not knowing what that something was. It was a natural step for me to send Aaron and Karrie a text saying Restore needs to get involved.

Amy summed up Restore’s culture and response,

As a community, RC tries to listen for the Holy Spirit. Listening for whom to be good news to, whether in our neighborhoods or across an ocean. It was so clear that God was telling us to move in this crisis. So we did.

Karrie and I planted Restore Church in 2012. Our church community is located in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, a city just north of Washington, D.C. We began to research ways to come alongside efforts already underway in serving the refugees. After much research and discussion, we decided to support Medical Teams International and Heart for Lebanon.

During our Sunday worship gathering on September 13, 2015, I announced that all offerings given that day would go to those two organizations, both of which have long histories of refugee advocacy. We partnered in this effort with our friends and fellow church planters Ben and Shaina Thompson of City Campus Church, Columbus, Ohio. Together, our churches gave almost $10,000 that day to Medical Teams and Heart for Lebanon.

After that gift, Servant Group International—another Christian organization with a great history of serving Muslims in the Middle East—crossed our path. SGI was stepping up its operations in Greece, which has become the gateway for most refugees. SGI needed volunteers to serve refugees in the camps, squats, and ports of Greece.

Learning Lessons

We sent our first team of Restore members in May and a second team in November 2016. Restore has two additional trips to Greece scheduled this year. We are leveraging every resource we have to serve refugee families in need.

We are called to change this story. A tragedy is unfolding, and we are not OK with it. Americans seem to drastically underestimate the political brilliance and humanitarian savvy of Jesus Christ.

Through our mission, here is what we have learned.

Jesus doesn’t draw circles and boundaries, he erases them. He erased the boundary between Heaven and earth, God and humanity, Jew and Gentile, death and life. Boundaries mean nothing for us, his followers. These people are no longer refugees; they are family. They are no longer immigrants; they are neighbors. They are no longer enemies; they are friends.

Incredible things happen when we believe this and act on it. I’ve watched relational walls come crashing down over a shared meal and conversation with Muslim refugees. Communion isn’t just a stale cracker and bitter grape juice on Sunday morning; the shared meal is a political and relational strategy that Jesus introduced to the world . . . and it’s wildly successful.

Perfect love needs to cast out fear. I’m appalled at the fear-based response of American Christians toward immigrants and refugees. In November, I took my 17-year-old Syrian friend “O” out to lunch. He had fled Aleppo with his mother and two younger brothers. His father was killed.

He asked me, “Why do Americans not like us?”

My answer: “Because they don’t know you, which makes them afraid of you. If they met you, they would love you.”

The fear that grips a lot of American Christians needs to be replaced with love. The more people we can get to operate out of a well of love, rather than a well of fear, the sooner this crisis will end.

Jesus did not give us the cross just to save us from our sins. He gave us the cross to demonstrate the power of agape, self-sacrificing love. He gave us the resurrection to show the world that love conquers all. The cross and resurrection is a political and relational strategy, and our refugee friends need more people to believe this and live it out.

They need friends. For years they have been hunted, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered only to escape to places that view them as a problem to be ridded rather than people to be loved. They need contact and friendships with people who care for them.

In conversations with refugees, I can actually see the physical and spiritual restoration occurring in the midst of our time with them. They just need to be reminded that they are beautifully and wonderfully made, and that they are cherished. Our presence in the squats, camps, and ports literally brings life and dignity back to them.

They need advocacy. We have an opportunity and a calling to be a prophetic voice in our country. Our refugee family needs people who will stand against ignorance, fear, racism, and nationalism. These are preventing justice from entering this crisis. The church needs to remember and recover her prophetic voice and her ability to change the world by advocating and standing with our refugee family.

I can’t help but think of Jesus standing between the adulterous woman and the Pharisees, as well as other efforts for good, such as the Underground Railroad, aiding Jews in Nazi Germany, and the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. We should look for every opportunity to advocate and stand against the evil that is oppressing our refugee family. Notice that Christlike advocacy doesn’t involve violence, but only love and truth.

Through all of this, Restore’s hope is that the refugees’ memories will no longer be of war, but of friends who came to walk with them out of hell, and into a restored life. We know it’s not a pipe dream because the grave is empty, the King is on the throne, and his church is responding to his voice.

Aaron Thomas serves as pastor with Restore Church, Silver Spring, Maryland. He travels to Athens, Greece, twice a year as part of a church effort to serve refugees.

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