franciscan - January 2003
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002
by Ann Horgan
According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees a refugee is a person who, ‘owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable or unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country’. As I write, there are 11 million such people. There are as many again wandering hungry, homeless and traumatised within their native country or seeking asylum at ports and borders of "friendly" countries.
In Sudan alone, there are an estimated four million internally displaced people. Their only crime is to have been born in a country that is divided by war, oppression and religious fanaticism. Their tragedy is that their brothers and sisters in "developed" and "peaceful" countries shut their eyes and their ears to the sight and sound of their suffering.
In fifty years from now will people be asking the same questions of our generation that survivors of the Holocaust have been asking since the 40s? Will there be the same disbelief that in our time, humanity could have acted with such inhumanity? To some this might sound over-stated and even offensive. But the fact is that as I write, legislation regarding refugees worldwide becomes increasingly xenophobic and isolationist. Present policy in Europe, America and Australia is more about keeping out or isolating the stranger than welcoming him/her in. When I was in El Paso two years ago three men trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas drowned while many spectators, including border guards, stood by and watched. Certain media frequently refer to "bogus" asylum seekers. Racism rears its ugly head in a tower block in Quinton as a young family's window is covered in egg yolk. A detention centre costing millions of pounds goes up in smoke as refugees protest at their treatment. There was no sprinkler system installed at the centre. The poorest countries continue to harbour the greatest number of refugees.
Welcoming the stranger is not something that is specific to Christians. It is a social practice accepted in theory by people of all major faiths. It is an obligation for all members of the human race, brothers and sisters of one another. To Christians who grapple with questions regarding the "legitimacy " or otherwise of the refugees in our midst I offer the following reflection.
The model par excellence for welcoming the stranger is the account of Abraham's reception of the three strangers in Genesis 18:1-14 . We read that Abraham "ran" to meet them. He begged them not to pass by. Sarah was duly told to make bread, and a "tender calf, cream and milk were set before them." What hospitality! No courtesy is omitted, no awkward questions asked. The strangers are received as they are. They are recognised as bearers of joy, and blessing. All rather exaggerated, you might be heard to murmur, but for Abraham as for the writer of Genesis there was no other way, because as they saw it, it was "Yahweh (who) appeared at the oak of Mamre."
Many asylum seekers come from a culture that places the same value on greeting the stranger as did Abraham and Sarah. My first meal at an asylum seekers' home was something I shall never forget. ‘A’. was a young mother with four children recently arrived from a war zone in rural East Africa. With hardly any knowledge of English she was trying to build a home and new life. I had dropped in to say hello and when it became obvious that food was about to be eaten I stood up to leave. There was dismay all round. Did I not want to eat with them? Maybe I did not like their food? All this expressed with great courtesy but with equal misapprehension. So I stayed. We sat at a round table. Their food consisted of a very large ingira or "pancake" on top of which was meat in a sauce. As the guest I was invited to bless the food. We ate with our fingers, breaking off some of the ingira and dipping it in the main dish. The lively conversation was around school, English class, a harrowing visit to the benefit agency, joys and sorrows. One bread, one family, united in love, insecurity, loneliness but above all in hope for the future. On the way home I thought how no theology book on Communion could have touched me more than this unforgettable experience.
Jesus frequently ate and drank with the socially and religiously unaccepted of his day. His detractors knew too well the significance and consequences of visiting those "others". "Why does your Master eat and drink with them?" In building accommodation centres a government that refuses to be generous with asylum seekers is destroying the very heart of their culture. People in accommodation centres cannot practise hospitality or be easily visited. On the other hand to put asylum seekers/refugees into flats or houses that no one else will accept, is to humiliate and degrade them. Integration is reciprocal. To preach that asylum seekers and refugees must integrate in society, without encouraging society to open its heart and mind to the richness of other cultures and faiths is to promote exclusivity and racism. Legislation for integration will succeed very slowly, if at all, if we continue to see ourselves as the epitome of all that is civilised and true. No one people or doctrine can lay claim to the whole truth. When this happens disaster inevitably follows as the world has recently been forced to admit in tragic circumstances. The magnanimity of Jesus' inclusiveness is everywhere in the Gospels. More than 120 gallons of water are changed into the "best wine" (John 2. 10). He tells his disciples "When you have a party, invite the poor. That they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate"! (Luke 14.13) One of my favourite gospel stories is that of Jesus cooking breakfast at dawn and the catch of fish so many that they could not haul in the net. Can we call ourselves his followers and not be generous with others, sharers and companions?
A modern parable of welcoming the stranger must be the novel "Chocolat". It is, in my opinion, a highly political and social commentary on the fear of the stranger in a closed society. Magnanimity can overcome the threat, real or imaginary, that a newcomer among us can pose. The "outcast" in the village was the one who brought salvation to the inhabitants. The restrictions imposed on the whole community by the power of one lonely man fell apart at the taste of chocolate made by one courageous woman who dared defy the status quo. How often the gift that is given becomes in turn a gift to the giver.
John Baptist Metz suggests that God for our time is the suffering God, the God of the afflicted and the marginalized. We may not find him elsewhere. Metz has written about "the dangerous memory of Jesus" which can move us to look for new possibilities of reducing suffering and fostering social change. Each new and unexpected encounter can evoke new ways of thinking and acting. More importantly, such encounters can compel us to ask new questions, or to ask the old questions differently. How can we live the Word so that we become witnesses to inclusivity? What are the real day-to-day implications for us in a multicultural society if we try to "act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God"? (Micah 6.8) How can we creatively and with imagination celebrate the Lord's Supper so that we become truly companions? We must dare to be dangerous. f
Ann Horgan is a Religious Sister of Charity. She co-ordinated the Befriending Programme of Restore, a Birmingham Churches Together project supporting asylum seekers and refugees, and has recently moved to Ireland to work among refugees in the Order’s schools.
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