"We had been moved by the tragic images of desperate refugees pushing their way through border fences, cramming into scorching hot train stations, or walking along endless highways in search of a new home."
What can we do? That was the question we asked ourselves as we drove down to a refugee camp on the southern border of Slovakia. We had been moved by the tragic images of desperate refugees pushing their way through border fences, cramming into scorching hot train stations, or walking along endless highways in search of a new home. The refugee crisis was no longer a faraway problem, but one right on our doorstep.
As a Canadian global worker, I knew something should be done, but I didn’t know where to start. I had no training in this area of ministry, no calling to the displaced, and no idea what to do. Thankfully God provided an opportunity for us and a fellow international pastor to go and visit a refugee camp in Gabcikovo, Slovakia.
Our visit took place in October 2015, a few months after the media attention had started to fade. It's easy to be provoked to do something when there are evocative images on TV and calls to action on Facebook. This type of response can be helpful, but when the spotlight fades the problem doesn't go away. We wanted to know what the ongoing needs would be and what sustainable action could look like.
When I say refugee camp, most people think of white UN tents crammed inside fenced-off areas in the middle of nowhere. This camp, however, was located in the dormitories of a technical university with open access for people to come and go. Children were riding a few bikes, men were playing volleyball, and women were peering into smartphones. The camp was orderly and well run, unlike the images we had seen on TV. This was not quite what we expected.
“They’re bored,” one camp employee told us. “They’ve been on a long journey, and now they have to wait to see if Europe will accept them or not. There’s not a lot to do at the camp.” As we walked around and tried to interact with people, we realized how true this was. Many had done the hard and brutal journey on blistered feet, in cramped trucks, on rickety boats and crowded trains. But now, they were on the last leg of the journey, standing on the welcome mat to see if the door to a new life was going to be opened for them.
We did our best to talk, connect and alleviate their boredom. We did it through sports and learning how to say “sorry” in Arabic. We tried to do it a couple of months later at Christmastime by delivering Boxes of Love to excited kids. We tried to do it by collecting strollers and necessary equipment and by meeting practical needs. All of these are small things, but right now it’s all we can do.
It would be easy for me as a global worker to exploit this crisis for my own benefit. Believe me, it sometimes happens in the world of missions. A strategic selfie with people in need behind me or a well-written Facebook update can give the appearance that we are doing much more than we really are when it comes to a hot issue. It’s a temptation for global workers because it attracts attention, and that means more opportunities to raise money for our budgets.
But here’s the truth: a handful of visits to a refugee camp does not make me an expert in refugee ministry. Most times I don’t even know what Jesus is doing in the midst of this issue. So, I won’t claim to know much, but I have learned a few things:
- Listen. Stories are incredibly important. When we take time to hear people’s stories, then we can truly understand what is at stake. Many of the stories we heard contained dreams of returning home to Syria. Some of the stories contained deep pain and loss. All of the stories provided a moment of real human interaction, where a word of encouragement or love could be shared. Listening shows that you really care and it creates a new opportunity for love, grace and healing to come.
- Show hospitality. We have very limited access to the refugees when it comes to speaking about Jesus and sharing our own stories. Most of them will not stay for more than a few months, so building relationships is nearly impossible. Even so, we are called to show hospitality, to welcome the foreigner and stranger and love them as ourselves because that is what God wants (Leviticus 19:34). Those of you in Canada will have a greater opportunity to show hospitality as refugees become your neighbours.
- Love your neighbour. This is the second greatest command given to us by Jesus. The opportunity to love is incredible. People from nations that are “restricted access” are now moving in next door. Nations that take years to get into and impact with the gospel are now longing to be loved and accepted as they set foot in our neighbourhoods.
- Love your enemy. Some people would try to create fear and hatred toward refugees by claiming they are our enemies. That’s fine because Christ gives us the command and the privilege to love them as our enemies. I would suggest it’s easier to love your neighbour, but either way, true followers of Christ must live the way of the cross and not the way of angry pundits.
- Change the narrative. One of the things we quickly realized was that the camp directors had very negative views of Christians and churches that wanted to be involved. They told us some groups had come just to take photos for their own purposes and others had come to spread “propaganda.” We feel it is our responsibility to help change their perspective by showing them that Christ followers want to love and serve them as well as the refugees. Telling the real story of the gospel through love and good deeds may actually change the way refugees and others view the church in Canada as well.
So what can we do? We continue to ask the Holy Spirit for opportunities. We continue to try to connect others to this work in a co-ordinated fashion. We continue to be transparent about what is really happening. We continue to believe that the church in Europe will not miss this sovereign moment to reach people with love and kindness instead of fear and ignorance.
The question remains for all of us today—what can we do?
Sheldon and Anna Armitage have three fantastic daughters. They have worked in Europe since 2002. They currently pastor Bratislava International Fellowship and are involved in other ministries around the Eurasia region. Follow them on Instagram (armitagecafe) or facebook.com/thearmitagecafe. You can also listen to their podcast (hntpodcast.podbean.com).
Images ©ERDO This article appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.