January 3, 2016
What would you take with you if you had to leave your home for the foreseeable future? In 2016 nearly 100,000 men, women, and children fled from their homes in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia to seek a new life away from war, terrorism, and violence. Syria itself is the victim of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, with more than eleven million people (half the country’s population) killed or forced to flee their homes.
According to the International Rescue Committee, tens of thousands of refugees are using rubber dinghies to cross the Aegean Sea to Lesbos, Greece. The IRC is at work in nearly forty countries and twenty-five US cities, seeking to restore safety, dignity, and hope to millions of families in need.
Imagine only being able to take what you can carry yourself while walking many miles a day. Imagine being interrogated, shot at, robbed, exploited by smugglers, and jammed into tiny boats. And imagine having to dump into the water whatever you did take in order to keep the boat afloat.
A twenty-year-old mother from Syria escaped from a violent refugee camp with her husband and ten-month-old daughter, crossing over into Turkey and then taking a raft to Europe. Even after Turkish police detached the motor to stop them, they kept going, using makeshift paddles.
What’s in her bag? Pain relievers, sunscreen, toothpaste, a bottle of sterile water, baby food, napkins for diaper changes, a hat and socks for the baby, personal documents, the baby’s vaccination history, wallet and ID, cell phone charger, and yellow headband. “Everything is for my daughter to protect her against sickness. When we arrived in Greece, a kind man gave me two jars of food. Another man gave us biscuits and water when he saw my baby.”
We cannot fail to read the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23) with their young child, Jesus, without making the comparisons. Families running for their lives, carrying very little in their bag except hope. Entering a new country, knowing no one, utterly dependent upon the hospitality and good will of others. Wondering if they will be able to make a new life, even as they hope to return some day to their homeland. Thinking only of the most vulnerable among them: the children, the sick, and the elderly. Praying that, by a miracle, they will see the face of God in the kindness of strangers. What do you suppose was in Mary and Joseph’s bag?
Iqbal traveled hundreds of miles from the warring province of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, through Iran and Turkey to Greece, fearful for his life every step of the way. The teenager had traveled hundreds of miles and dodged bullets, fleeing east to Iran, then traveling by foot to Turkey. Crossing over by boat into Lesbos, Iqbal arrived with only a backpack and wonders what next. He has a brother in Florida and another friend who made it to Germany before him.
What’s in Iqbal’s bag? One each of pants, shirt, shoes, and socks; shampoo; hair gel, toothbrush and toothpaste; face whitening cream; comb; nail clipper; bandages; 100 U.S. dollars and 130 Turkish liras; Smart phone and back-up cell phone; and SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. “I want my skin to be white and hair to be spiked. I don’t want them to know I’m a refugee. I think that someone will spot me and call the police because I’m illegal.”
The Joint Public Issues Team is a consortium of churches in Britain, including the Methodist Church, The Church of Scotland, the United Reform Church, and Baptists Together, all seeking to live out the gospel together by addressing the immigration crisis in Britain. As of September 2016, 37,958 asylum seekers in the UK were entitled to accommodation and/or financial support of less than £6 per day from the government’s National Asylum Support Service.
The Joint Public Issues Team produced a poignant Christmas video called “A Very British Nativity,” which highlights the realities of those seeking asylum in the UK and the responsibility of churches to be advocates. “It’s time to give asylum seekers of today the dignity they deserve,” the video concludes.
A family from Aleppo lost everything. When they left Syria, each member took one or two bags. During the journey to Turkey and then Greece, their boat began to sink. Seven women, four men, and twenty children managed to salvage just one bag among them.
What’s in their one bag? One shirt, one pair of jeans, one pair of shoes, toiletries, one diaper, two small cartons of milk and some biscuits; personal documents and money, sanitary pads and a comb. “I hope we die. This life is not worth to live anymore. Everyone closed the door in our face, there is no future.”
What’s in your bag as you enter the new year? If you only had one bag to take with you into 2017, what would it contain? What is most important to you? What are the non-negotiables that disciples of Jesus Christ need in order to witness to God’s love for all people?
As I ponder this question, I realize anew that most of the “things” that I cling to are not only unnecessary but might actually prevent other people from living fully. In my 2017 bag, I vow to take compassion, suffering love, courage to always do the right thing, a commitment to see other people with new eyes, and a renewed passion to work for the day when all people are welcome to the table, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they look like.
At the same time, I vow to leave out of my bag false assumptions, hate, fear, bigotry, the arrogance of thinking that everyone has to look, talk, and think like me, and the presumption that I get to decide who is worthy of God’s love and who isn’t.
But there is an equally important question. What will be in the bag of The United Methodist Church this year? As the Commission on a Way Forward begins its work, how will we participate as individuals and congregations?
- How will prayer be a part of the bag your local church brings into the new year? How will you enter into a time of intentional prayer for the future of The United Methodist Church? The Iowa Annual Conference’s designated week of prayer is May 21-27.
- Will an openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit and a willingness to allow God to work in unexpected ways be in your bag?
- Will your bag contain a commitment to bring hope to the 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world? Would your church consider resettling a refugee family so that they have a safe place to live and work, the chance for an education, and the opportunity to give back to their new community?
- Will your church open your bag to the “religiously displaced” people in your community who have been rejected and/or excluded from churches for a variety of reasons?
“By contrast, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23) The good news is that the fruits of the spirit won’t take up any extra room in your bag. What will you put in your bag in 2017?