We have all been strangers in a new place – disturbed when no one seems to care about us. Even in our own country we can have difficulty understanding the locals, and are reassured when we meet someone we can talk to . We learn something of what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.
In ancient Israel the God-given social standards emphasised the importance of justice and compassion for the stranger and those who came seeking asylum. God sees our response to strangers as a measure of our Christ-likeness, because the Lord Jesus had time for all kinds of people and did not avoid the needy.
A compassionate response to the outsider is expressly commanded in the New Testament: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers’ (Hebrews 13:2). The changing circumstances in our communities compel us to address our duty to the stranger within our gates.
Though small, our Presbyterian Reformed Church in Stockton-on-Tees found that contact with asylum seekers grew out of just being there. One man was passing the door and a friendly greeting brought him in to the morning service (and regularly afterwards).
A telephone call from 250 miles away put us in contact with a Turkish family in the area.
Our open-air preaching and a monthly market bookstall run by some of our members have also brought us into contact with asylum seekers and resulted in folk attending services.
With encouragements come new responsibilities. Suddenly the preacher who is not gifted in modern languages faces a problem – the ancient judgement at the Tower of Babel!
Unlike the missionary, who usually has one new language to learn, the local pastor faces an insuperable task. He feels as if he is present at some reunion to mark the confusion of tongues, with a multiplicity of languages to master!
Our problem was compounded by the absence of any linguists in the congregation, but Information Technology came to our rescue in a new way.
A software package that converts English into French provided sermon notes for folk from the Congo. A friend introduced us to an internet site enabling us to do the same with English to Turkish. It takes time but helps us to provide useful outlines.
Other languages still present problems but the Trinitarian Bible Society came to the rescue with an Arabic Bible. A member at theological college was able to translate some material into Farsi for Iranians.
What do you do when faced with pressing and potentially endless physical needs? The government policy of withdrawing accommodation and support from asylum seekers remaining in the UK after an appeal failure is producing a growing number of hungry nomads wandering from friend to friend in search of shelter.
The situation is so dire that one asylum seeker said to me, ‘You can do nothing, only God can help us’.
I had to agree that only God can help but I explained that the Good Samaritan did not look at the badly beaten man and say, ‘Only God can heal him’ (which we grant is true) and then do nothing. There was a place for action as well as faith.
But there is the challenge of Obadiah too. He disobeyed Ahab to hide the prophets of the Lord in a cave. Nobody wants to be deported to prison or death, and destitution in Britain remains preferable to feared reprisals.
Which of us would want someone who has sat in the pew and at our lunch table to be sent back to dangerous circumstances?
Having looked at a variety of sources concerning, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo, I would have to say that I would not want to go there. In fact I understand that the Home Office advises UK travellers not to go.
Could we end up following Obadiah in order to save people from deportation to imprisonment, torture and death?
The civic conscience
Those who have regular contact with the despairing and depressed know what a ‘black hole’ has been created.
One man who opens his own home to asylum seekers put the morality of the situation to me: ‘it is driving people into crime and prostitution’.
Now, I have never been a political activist on behalf of asylum seekers. All they have asked of me can be summed up in the words of the fearful and distressed man who said, ‘Pastor pray for me’.
However, I did consider it appropriate to express my concerns in a number of directions. To date only my local MP has replied confirming that she has been strenuously lobbying the Home Office regarding particular cases. She has also passed on the concerns expressed in my letter to the Minister for Immigration and Asylum.
I am sure that if Christians all over the country wrote to their MPs there would be greater potential under God for an awakening of civic conscience over this matter.
We enjoy reading about what God accomplished through the Clapham Sect in a time of need. Should we not equally consider what could be accomplished through us today?
The minister of Christ must not be deflected from preaching the gospel and his pastoral labours to ‘serve tables’, but it is difficult to balance one’s responsibilities. However, without question, each Christian is to be both salt and light in society, while thechurch collectively has a responsibility for the poor and needy.
Were we to hide from the problem – or expect our Government to solve it for us by mass deportations as Holland intends to do – would we not fail in our Christian witness?
After all, the church, like John the Baptist, should have a decisive testimony about how to deal properly with human beings. It belongs to faith to be humane. Did not Christ have compassion on the multitudes?
There is something intensely positive about the social problem of asylum seekers – their distressing and disturbing circumstances unite people who are otherwise divided.
My MP is usually on the opposite side to myself regarding various politically correct legislative measures. Yet the gravity of this crisis has cut across the political gulf.
Again, a local charity founded by a charismatic church to provide accommodation is willing to help an asylum seeker referred by me.
Within our own congregation there are the benefits of united prayer and awakening compassion. There is also the blessing of spontaneous action. What a joy to the pastor’s heart when he does not have to ask for something to be done but finds that someone hasalready taken the initiative and done it!
The need is compelling. There is so much that we can learn in times of crisis. As the labourers have scanned the fields over these past thirty years, things have not been too promising. There have been tares in abundance but little wheat to reap.
But the smile on the face of a young Arab on receiving the Bible in his own language opened up a prospect we have long prayed for but did not expect to find in this particular way.
By getting involved we increase our own sorrow at the pain of others. But if we are following the ‘man of sorrows’ who was ‘acquainted with grief’, may we not anticipate the blessing too?
There may be much more in the present crisis than we ever dreamed – ‘it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand’ (Isaiah 53:10).