Hospitality to strangers

October 21, 2015 | Editorial | Volume 19 Issue 21
Dick Benner, Editor/Publisher

Next to the Toronto Blue Jays, nothing more has gotten our attention as Anabaptist Mennonites than the greatest refugee crisis in the modern age, with more than 50 million displaced persons—the greatest number since the Second World War. With our own history of resettlement during the past century, this has become our defining spiritual moment.

Move over John 3:16; make room for Deuteronomy 10:18: “The Lord your God . . . loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” The Book of Hebrews, referencing a text from Genesis, says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some entertained angels without knowing it.”

Refugee resettlement, especially of Syrian refugees, is top of mind in most of our circles. In this edition alone, two columns and one story address the issue in different forms. In “Defining the other” on page 7, Willard Metzger reminds us of Jesus’ attitude towards the marginalized in his time and place, and gives us practical ways to diminish our tendency to view others different from us as the “other.”

In his Viewpoint piece on page 12 about a certain Mennonite community showing intolerance, Will Braun questions our “tendency to hunker down, to nurture feelings of superiority, to fight off the other, which is usually a stand-in for our own insecurities,” in “Does religion make people intolerant?” A fair warning and a reminder that we are not that far away from our secluded enclaves of parochialism where we used to lump all outsiders together as the “English,” a Low-German equivalent of “gentiles.”

And in delightful juxtaposition, “‘Being good neighbours to those around us,’” on page 14, J. Neufeld tells a story of hope by Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Ludwigshafen, Germany, working with local volunteers to set up German courses for newcomers, organizing food and clothing drives, and accompanying people to government offices to help them with their paperwork.

Many local congregations here in Canada are responding to Mennonite Central Committee’s appeal to sponsor refugee families with their housing, education and medical needs. In my own 250-member congregation, both an independent group and the church itself are arranging for several families to resettle in our community, raising nearly $50,000 above budget to do so.

There is a political dimension to this transitional moment. With the Liberal sweep as the new government on election day, we hold to the hope that refugees will be welcomed with wide-open arms and that the “fear factor” about terrorists among them will be gone. There is new hope, not only for international refugees, but also a new day for Canada’s indigenous peoples, if Justin Trudeau’s campaign promises turn into action for our native sisters and brothers. Our faith community now has a new ally in treating these suffering millions with dignity.

As part of the global village, we are also an integral part of the solution. European countries, as referenced in Neufeld’s story, face a considerable challenge in coordinating the reception of refugees. Turkey and Lebanon are already hosting more than 1 million displaced Syrians, and Iraq, Egypt and Jordan are each hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Syria’s neighbours have not been exactly helpful. According to Amnesty International, the rich Gulf countries—Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, located near the crisis region—have funded some of the groups fighting in Syria, but have offered no resettlement places to Syrian refugees. Wealthy countries like Russia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have also failed to respond. And now Russia, with its military intervention, is increasing the number of refugees fleeing.

The problem is complex, with many dire dimensions. It might feel as if our efforts as a small denomination, or as a few Christians, are a drop in the proverbial bucket. We have little political clout besides our vote. We are not of one political persuasion. Those of us who believe strongly in one of our core Anabaptist beliefs—pacifism—are often held in disrepute by our fellow patriots, or, at the very least, are suspect.

We are most effective following the example of Jesus in our local congregations and communities. These are our neighbours. We are commanded to “love them as ourselves.” To do this, far above the weight of our numbers or political influence, is to find creative ways, such as Leon Kehl did in Waterloo Region in Ontario, where he used the face of his own mother in a hijab on a poster in place of an endangered grandmother trapped in Syria, to bring support on social media for Syrian refugees (Oct. 12, page 14).

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