I wrote a blessing the other day about ‘home’, and will use it later in our service. It hints that home is not just a physical place exterior to us, but a space interior to us. It hints that home is about feeling safe, feeling wanted, and being familiar with the smells and habits of that place. Home is also, maybe primarily, about relationships, friendships, family, and being part of a community.
The blessing also hints that home is where God is. In most faith traditions the Divine is largely a mystery, largely unknown, and not containable or controllable by any culture, race, or human power. But each faith tradition offers access points to God. For Christians there is the Bible, there is music, worship, and prayers, and there are buildings, communities, and institutions. All are access points into this mystery. Home is where we know we can breathe in this mystery called God.
The experience of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons is that many of these markers of home have gone. The house and community of one’s childhood has gone. The safety and comfort of familiarity has gone. The access points for faith – ‘to breathe God’- may also be gone. As the poet John O’Donohue points out the refugee becomes not only a stranger in a strange land, but strange even to themselves.
One way of understanding the Bible is that it is a collection of stories about home and homelessness, and about wandering and finding welcome.
There are big, macro stories in the Bible of dislocation and relocation. There is the story of the family of Jacob [later called Israel] being forced by famine to relocate to Egypt; and then some generations later due to persecution fleeing from Egypt into the Sinai wilderness and eventually coming to Canaan. The historicity of some of this is of course disputed. What is not in dispute is the power of the home and homelessness myth shaping the Jewish faith and Jewish ethics. As the Torah says (Leviticus 19:33-34): “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him or her wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love her or him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Another macro story is the Babylonian exile, a reference to the invasion of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonian Empire and the forced deportation of many Jews to Babylon. There they stayed for some 60 years until the Persian conqueror of Babylonian, Cyrus the Great, allowed them to return. Interestingly during that time of exile the oral stories and traditions of home would take written form in the Torah, and from that time on the written word would be very powerful for both Jews, and later Christians, as a means of centring their faith and providing an access point to God.
The prophet Zechariah (7:9-10), writing shortly after this return from exile, reiterates the ethics of welcome: “Thus says (God)… show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
The third macro story I would draw your attention to is hinted at in our Galatians (3:23-29) reading today. In the first century CE the Jesus movement increasingly found it difficult to live with its mother faith, Judaism. St Paul and others advocated opening wide the doors of the Jewish house to such an extent that many of the traditions, customs, and rules would need to be revised or discarded. Conflict arose. Conflict that is reflected in the gospels accounts written in the late first and early second century. In time, for most followers of Jesus, the ways parted.
This tension between holding to values and traditions of the past and welcoming and inviting in those of other values and traditions is repeated time and again in cultures, faiths, and nations. We want to be hospitable to refugees, but we don’t want to change too much. Our leaders and politicians want to get the balance right, but usually they err on the side of those who want to preserve the status quo or are frightened of what change might be required.
Jesus is a politician’s and a Christian’s nightmare. Remember Luke 9:58 "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man (Jesus) has nowhere to lay his head.” Home for the adult Jesus was not Nazareth, or Capernaum, or Jerusalem. Home was ‘in God’. Or rather home was in the Missio Dei (the Mission of God). And that mission was to include the ostracised – the sick, foreigners, refugees, even the enemy - into the house of faith, and into his company. He opened his arms and his heart wide and said, as Dobbyn sings, “Welcome home. Welcome home from the bottom of my heart... So welcome home, see I made a space for you now.”
Tracey Barnett, journalist and founder of WagePeaceNZ, https://www.facebook.com/wagepeacenz/ and ‘Welcome #500Now’ on how we can do more for refugees.
Why are you so passionate about the plight of refugees?
When you sit across the table from someone who has been imprisoned and tortured from the age of twelve for the crime of handing out leaflets, suddenly your own life is thrown into stark relief, like a black silhouette against a white backdrop. My riches, the almost obscene disparity between the richness of my life’s choices and the utter poverty of his—humbled and renewed the responsibility of my work. My experience of reporting from refugee camps and conflict areas has reinforced my personal belief that with privilege comes responsibility.
What does NZ’s refugee future look like? i.e. How are we likely to be affected by this refugee crisis now and in the future?
Probably the sadness number to come across my desk in a while is that there is now a 60% reduction in nations offering to resettle UNHCR refugees this year. New Zealand can take no pride in the fact that we rank 121st worst in the world for the total number of refugees and asylum seekers we host by our relative wealth, our GDP (and 95th worst per capita). The reality? We are the problem too. Because no refugees can walk across our borders like other land-connected nations, most of our in-take is pre-determined by our tiny annual quota, set at 1000 in 2018. The call to to do more, is squarely in the hands of regular Kiwis pro-actively asking their leaders to simply do our fair share.
It is worth noting, New Zealand has never received a boat of asylum seekers on our shores, at least in modern history. Can it happen? Of course. Will we always be the least cost effective for traffickers because of our geography—absolutely. What lies in our future may be climate change ‘refugees’—something the current 1951 Refugee Convention does not address—as places like Kirabati and Tuvalu face disappearing. We will be at the leading edge of this debate as the first islands to disappear are likely to be in our Pacific region.
Why are there so many refugees now compared to other times in history?
The short answer, more war, more refugees. Less war, less people on the move. Refugee numbers wax and wane in direct proportion to more or less conflict. After WWII, Europe alone had 40 million people on the move. Today, we are dwarfing those numbers with an estimated 65 million refugees worldwide, about 11 million of which are Syrians alone. We have certainly had peaceful decades too. Then others, like the 1990’s (Rwanda, Yugoslavia) where we saw the numbers spike again. No one wants to leave their home, their country, potentially forever. As poet Warsan Shire says so incisively, ‘No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark’. It is a last resort when bombing and conflict make ‘home’ untenable. The Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, most recently, the Rohingya people—all have seen conflict raging for years now. These people lose hope that their children—51% of refugees worldwide are children—will ever be safe.
What can we do about it—in addition to raising our official refugee quota?
No matter what your party affiliation, the key to seeing NZ become a more compassionate country for refugees is to teach our leaders that this is a humanitarian imperative, not a party-political one. Recently, I was lucky enough to get four former Prime Ministers onboard the call to ask our government to ‘Welcome #500Now’ more refugees; Helen Clark, Jim Bolger, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore. I believe the wisdom of their 20-20 hindsight gave us a clear directive—New Zealand can do more and should. Mike Moore said to me in a recent interview, ‘The fact that all these former Prime Ministers have come out with this is a sign of guilt—that we haven’t done enough. We are guilty. We haven’t done our job.’
What can you do?
Email our Prime Minister, your MP, our immigration and foreign affairs minister and party leaders with a simple message, ‘Welcome #500Now’ and raise our quota—because it is the morally right thing to do. Two or three sentences is all you need. Send a selfie holding up our sign too.
Wear your colours. This congregation has very generously printed small signs to put on your home’s street front window, also on your business window. Take one, take several, and give them to friends too. Those who feel passionately about this, contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to distribute these signs to area businesses for display. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these cropped up in hundreds of windows like a musical refrain, the simple directive to how we can become a more compassionate nation? First step, compassion begins at home. Put up your sign at home first.
Find out more about our new ‘Community sponsorship’ trial of 25 refugees and how your congregation might be included—either now, or in its rollout next year.
Like and share the Facebook page, WagePeaceNZ, https://www.facebook.com/wagepeacenz/. I am a passionate believer in knowledge dispelling hate. An educated public is a fairer one. I post regularly about refugee issues in NZ, our region and beyond. Arm yourself with the knowledge that can extinguish ignorant pre-judgements. Consider taking a selfie with our sign, write #500Now in the palm of your open hand in white board marker and post it on social media. Tag @WagePeaceNZ and use the ‘Welcome #500Now’ hash tag in your post. Just sharing a post now and again is doing good work.
To listen to short three-minute excerpts of our former Prime Ministers on this subject:
Jim Bolger - https://youtu.be/UWy3VdV4wjg
Sir Geoffrey Palmer - https://youtu.be/JgY42SHUlV4
Mike Moore - https://youtu.be/KtFtotUA2Fg
Helen Clark - https://youtu.be/jO_DJKyI79k