I’m going to be honest, as a refugee-supporting organisation the crises we need to respond to seem to be increasing a LOT! In the last year we have seen three mass migration movements to the UK (from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine) and major reform to the UK asylum system with the Nationality and Borders Bill passing through parliament. The politics of this has become very complicated – especially over the last few weeks as legal battles have gone backwards and forwards to determine whether the plane to Rwanda, carrying people who had travelled to the UK using unconventional means, including boats across the English Channel, would actually take off.
We are living in very unsettling times for lots of reasons, and the asylum story in the UK is one of those things that continues to be very disconcerting. Many of us have concerns about how people will be able to seek asylum in the UK in the future and how they will find safe communities in which to rebuild their lives – and especially in light of the potential increased suffering and uncertainty of those in need of refuge.. It is an issue that is dividing our communities. And yet I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s an issue that’s really important to Jesus and therefore, it needs to be important for me and my church too.
Here at Welcome Churches we passionately believe that every church in the UK can, and should, do something to show welcome and hospitality to those who are seeking refuge here. The Bible gives us lots of reasons for this – the most obvious one being when Jesus said that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him (Matthew 25:35). However, there are a whole host of other examples of why this issue is important in the Bible too.
To begin with, migration is a central part of the story of God’s people. The patriarchs in the Old Testament were people who migrated and made new homes in tents as they went. The Israelites became refugees as they fled the Egyptians and crossed the Red Sea. They were given the instruction ‘Do not mistreat foreigners, for you were foreigners in Egypt’ (Exodus 22:21). In fact, the whole theme of strangers and foreigners continues throughout the Bible. Jesus himself had to flee Herod as a refugee with his family. By the time we get to Philippians in the New Testament we are told that, as we await Jesus’ return, we should ALL be living as strangers on earth, because our citizenship is actually from heaven, not here (Philippians 3:20).
Justice is a tricky issue, raising questions such as whether it is possible for everyone to be treated equally at the same time. The desire to work towards more justice in the world is inspired by Bible passages such as “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17), and “let justice roll on like a river” (Amos 5:24). These are rooted in the eternal character of God, who has righteousness and justice as the foundation of his throne (Psalm 89:14) and hates injustice (Proverbs 11:1). If you have met people seeking refuge in the UK, you will very quickly hear about injustices they have faced. This week I have heard daily of someone else who has been made homeless, or has had some horrendous experience on their journey to the UK, or within the UK. It isn’t right, it isn’t just and it makes God angry (Isaiah 58).
A number of times in the New Testament we are told to practice hospitality. My favourite example is in Hebrews where we are told that if we offer hospitality to strangers, we might actually entertain angels without even realising it (Hebrews 13:2). Wow! We should all be queuing up and fighting over which strangers we get to show hospitality to!
I wholeheartedly believe that our churches are blessed and enriched when people from other cultures and experiences are welcomed, especially those who have been persecuted. Many of those who travel to the UK to seek asylum here do so because they have decided to follow Jesus, and it isn’t safe to do so in their home country. The Bible is clear that these people are heroes of the faith. They are the people we should be honouring, bending over backwards to help and support, because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our churches urgently need to become their new families; not to just invite them to church meetings but to be there for them week in and week out, to go to hospital appointments with them, to help them find jobs and homes. When we stop and think of all they have been through in order to follow Jesus, how could we do anything else?
God’s worldwide Church is full of EVERY tribe and culture. We see this in the book of Acts at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came during a gathering of all nations, and we see it in the final book in the Bible, Revelation, which describes all nations worshipping God before his throne. When we stop and realise this as well, we should be desperate to gather the nations in our own church communities too. Here in the UK the nations are arriving on our doorsteps. When we realise what the Bible says about God’s blessing coming when the nations are together, we should be nothing but excited about the possibilities that this gives to our churches.
Our churches have a responsibility right now to let everyone know how important this issue is to us. This is a moment in history where we need to decide whether we will speak up for what is right, or be silent. Our prayer at Welcome Churches is that this will matter to your church; that you will show your community how important it is to welcome those seeking refuge in your neighbourhood, and how you are blessed when you do so. Join us in saying to this nation that “welcome” is right. That the Church cares and that a better way has to be possible.
Written by Emily Shepherd – Joint CEO, Welcome Churches