Photography by Claire Elyse Hutchinson
There are more displaced people in the world today than ever before. Across the globe, conflict, persecution, or economic instability has forced millions to flee their homes in what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
“God is in control. That has to be our starting point,” said MTW refugee liaison Kay Burklin. “The global refugee crisis is a huge problem that’s getting worse, but I see it as an incredible opportunity for the church to respond.”
And the church is responding.
As nations and governments close borders and answer the cries of the vulnerable with fear and anger, MTW missionaries around the world are responding with the love of Christ, working with and through local churches to address the needs of refugees everywhere.
“When you hand a cup to someone, it’s very intimate. It’s one-on-one, eyeball to eyeball, usually your fingers touch.”
The situations from which these refugees have fled are horrifying, yet even in the midst of conflict, fear, and uncertainty, God is working all according to His purposes and for His glory. Many of the nations from which these men, women, and children have come are closed countries where it is very difficult and often illegal to share the Gospel. We are called to bring the good news of the Gospel to every nation. Now, the nations have come to us, relocated by tragedy to places where the Gospel can be freely shared and where grace-driven love can be freely shown.
They came by the thousands, by the tens and hundreds of thousands, braving the Mediterranean on fragile rafts, and landing in Greece or Italy.
They carried patchwork bags that wore the dust of countless miles and bore every material possession that remained. They carried the children for whom they were strong, and the ragged remnants of pride that kept their backs straight and tall. Some carried scars on their bodies, souvenirs from regimes or rebels. Most carried scars in their minds, their hearts. They all carried hope — clung to it for dear life like they had clung to their rafts on the raging sea.
A UNHCR report estimated that more than 850,000 people reached Greece by way of the Mediterranean in 2015. Thousands drowned in the attempt. At the peak of the crisis in October, some 221,000 refugees made the crossing attempt in a single month, overwhelming cities such as Athens.
“Imagine thousands of people walking down the highway and into your city every day for a year,” said Burklin. “It’s mind-boggling.”
In Athens, MTW is working with evangelical churches to respond to the crisis. They have cooked and provided thousands of meals for refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, and started The Center of Hope, a place where women can come for tea and rest, and where their children can play in peace.
Last fall, Burklin stood on the stoop of The Center of Hope and listened. Just listened. It was amazing how many women came just for this — to unburden themselves of their stories, to share their experiences with a caring, listening ear.
“This one lady had just gotten off one of those rickety boats, and she was just sitting there completely in shock,” said Burklin. “And I just stared at her — she was beautiful. She said: ‘I thought my child was going to die.’ And I handed her a cup of tea.
“That verse in Matthew 10 about handing someone a cup of water had never been so poignant,” Burklin added. “When you hand a cup to someone, it’s very intimate. It’s one-on-one, eyeball to eyeball, usually your fingers touch. These ladies who had escaped war and crossed the sea were sitting down, and we were serving them. They probably felt like normal people for the first time in who knows how long.”
Normal. What can that mean for someone who has lost everything? When a war zone is in your wake, when your dreams are haunted by barrel bombs and body bags, and the beautiful city of your youth is a shell of smoke and ash, perhaps normal is the very dream that drives you.
Later that week, Burklin’s translator, an Iranian cosmetologist, was animatedly speaking to a group of refugee women.
“They were having this really intense conversation,” said Burklin. “So I’m thinking they’re talking about the journey, being attacked by the Taliban, or something. So I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And my translator says: ‘She wants to have her eyebrows tattooed. Look at her eyebrows. They are just terrible.’
“These women wanted to look and feel like ladies,” Burklin added. “So now we’re planning to bring a group of hairdressers and cosmetologists over to the refugee camps. Sometimes showing the love of Christ means looking at people and saying: ‘Where is it that you are hurting, and where can we bring even a very small piece of respite to this point?’”
David and Eowyn Stoddard have served as MTW church planters in Berlin for the past 15 years. About three years ago, just before the refugee crisis began, they moved to the city’s southwest side to work with a new church plant dedicated to reaching their area.
“The refugee crisis has opened up all kinds of doors for us with local government and other churches in ways I have never seen happen in 15 years of living here.”
“We did a contextual analysis of our neighborhood and identified three target groups: young families, international students, and refugees,” said Eowyn Stoddard. “We had refugees on the radar before anything had really happened. So when the crisis came … it became a natural thing for us as a church plant to think about: OK, these people are in our neighborhood. How do we want to go about reaching them, getting to know them?”
Since then, the little Berlin church plant has been building relationships and sponsoring housing for refugees resettled from Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere. They host tea times and German language lessons at a local refugee home. Members of the team have even put together a Gospel choir made up of both Germans and refugees, creating an avenue to build bridges between communities.
“I believe as a local church our calling is to ask the question: ‘What is the Lord doing in our neighborhood?” said David Stoddard. “What are the ways we can join in and serve those in need, those who are suffering from injustice, in order that they hear the Gospel and see it at work?
“The refugee crisis has opened up all kinds of doors for us with local government and other churches in ways I have never seen happen in 15 years of living here,” he added.
“Everyone realized this is a crisis and no one can handle it alone. … And it’s opened doors with Muslims and nonbelievers to talk about the Gospel in ways that I just haven’t experienced before. So I’m not asking the question — is it dangerous, or are the policies correct? The way I look at it, the Lord has presented us with a tremendous opportunity. He has breathed life and given a tremendous sense of mission and clarity and focus to a church plant, and we’re seeing the Gospel at work. We’re seeing the Spirit at work among us and through us.”
A Global Imperative of Compassion
We serve a God of justice. A God who cares for the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast, and who asks us to do the same. In a world riven with conflict, we the church are called to defend the suffering, to love our neighbors as ourselves (Galatians 5:14), and treat the sojourner in our land as one of our own (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Refugees are more than the tragedies of their past. They are more than statistics or fodder for political agendas, and they are certainly more than caricatures to be feared and hated. They are philosophy teachers and dentists that teach you how to whiten your teeth from info online, day laborers and students, mothers and daughters, and brothers and sons. They are image bearers of their Creator, and because of that we are to treat them with dignity.
The refugee crisis is global, but so is the church. And MTW missionaries are partnering with churches across the world and asking — what is the need? What is God doing? How can we be the hands and feet of Jesus to these people in their hour of greatest need?
In Uganda, MTW missionaries are partnering with leadership from the South Sudanese Presbyterian Church to provide sustainable agricultural programs for the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who have fled civil war and ethnic violence.
In Panama, an MTW church plant is seeking to address the spiritual and material needs of a huge influx of Venezuelans who have left economic collapse in their country and now make up 85 percent of the church’s attendees.
In Ukraine, members of an MTW church plant in Odessa spontaneously began a program of ministry, humanitarian aid, and trauma counseling to a group of elderly and handicapped Ukrainians resettled from the war-torn cities in the East.
Even here in the U.S., MTW missionaries are ministering to refugees resettled in metropolitan Atlanta and New York City, providing English as a Second Language classes, helping them navigate life in America and find work, and sharing the love of Jesus.
“We have been shown mercy by God … so we want to be a local church that reaches out and shows mercy,” said Marc Summers, an MTW missionary in Panama City, Panama. “Can we help everybody? No, we can’t. There is a limit to the resources that are available. The question is: How can the church do everything that it can to ensure that these people survive? Because anything less is not the Gospel.”
This November, come learn about refugee and immigration issues at the Global Missions Conference in Dallas. Learn more at mtw.org/gmc.