Last Sunday marked the end of Refugee Week, which aims to celebrate the contributions of refugees and encourage better understanding of refugee experiences. Refugee support is something that is already on our hearts and minds here at Stoneygate, but it was right that we took the opportunity to spend more time listening to the voices of refugees, and to the heart of God for refugees.
To help us do that, we engaged with the seven Simple Acts recommended by Refugee Week. As part of that, we heard these alarming facts from the Refugee Council, and read some of the stories collected by Refugee Action. I encourage you to take time to read through those facts and some of those stories, and then tell at least one of them to at least one person this week, because telling someone’s story says that they are remembered and they are important, and hearing that story brings us closer to that person and reminds us that there are names and faces behind the facts and figures. And of course I encourage you to pray for those whose stories you have learned too.
Our reading on Sunday was an abridged version of the Book of Ruth, and I chose that reading for Refugee Week because it is a story of refugees. Naomi and her family seek refuge in Moab when life in Israel becomes unbearable because of famine, and Ruth seeks refuge in Israel when life in Moab becomes unbearable because of her and Naomi’s shared grief. But of course it is not the only story of refugees in scripture - the Israelites first went to Egypt because they were escaping famine during the time that Joseph was Pharaoh’s adviser, and then spent forty years as displaced persons in the desert; Jesus began his life as a refugee fleeing violence, and ended his life as a political prisoner, just the kind of person who becomes a refugee; and Christianity spread as believers were forced from their homes by persecution. The Bible is full of refugees, and God’s heart for them is clear.
We’ll get into that a little more as we go on, and we’ll wander away from Ruth, but let’s start with a closer look at our reading. In the past, I have been taught the Book of Ruth as the Bible’s great love story, but I think that is to impose our own narrative on it, perhaps influenced by a few too many romantic comedies, and to ignore some of the lessons it has to teach us. Boaz certainly seems struck by Ruth, and perhaps they do come to love one another, but that is not why they marry. They marry because she is a vulnerable widow and he is her kinsman redeemer, part of a system designed to protect her and other vulnerable people like her.
The kinsman redeemer was a person’s nearest relative, and they had particular obligations towards that person, including the duty to redeem them from slavery, to repurchase their property if they had had to sell it because of poverty, to avenge their blood if they were killed, and to receive the restitution if the injured relative had died. A kinsman redeemer would also be expected to marry his brother’s widow and give her a son if his brother had died without an heir, and that’s the part of the kinsman redeemer system that we see being put into action in the story of Ruth. We can of course ask questions about whether or not this was the best way to protect a vulnerable widow, but here was a system which had everyone covered and provided a safety net for those in most desperate need, which was absolutely clear about the people’s responsibilities to one another.
Because the kinsman redeemer system depended on family, it was only really designed to care for the people of Israel, and Ruth was protected by it only because she had married an Israelite man, so it perhaps doesn’t teach us too much about care for refugees in particular. It does however remind us of the importance of having structures of support which protect the most vulnerable, structures which are written into the fabric of society, and which we all participate in and are protected by. Many of the structures we have been so blessed by in this country, which have benefited all of us in our moments of need, are now being undervalued and undermined. The NHS is chronically overstretched and changes to the welfare system are leaving millions in poverty. Churches and charities are doing incredible work in trying to replace some of the safety net that is being taken away, and it is great to see more relational and collaborative ways of working, but we must fight to make sure that the structures remain so that no one falls through the gaps.
But to return to our story, the kinsman redeemer system wasn’t the only support mechanism that helped Ruth. When Boaz tells his men not to reap to the edge of the field, he is not being spontaneously kindhearted, but reminding them of the law. Leviticus mandates that the crops at the edges of fields and all fallen fruit must be left for the poor and the foreigner. This was just one of a number of specific provisions for a group variously translated as strangers or foreigners or aliens or sojourners, and this is where God’s heart for refugees becomes most clear.
Alongside the law about gleaning, Leviticus also requires that strangers are to be treated as native born Israelites, that they can participate in religious practice by making offerings, and they are to be done no wrong. Deuteronomy declares that the foreigner stands before God, must receive benefit of the tithe every third year, and is to be shown love. And Exodus explicitly includes them in the Sabbath law so that they too are free from work. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, the Hebrew Bible contains one injunction to love the neighbour but thirty seven commands to love the stranger. I don’t think that necessarily means we are to love the stranger thirty seven times as much as the neighbour, but I think it does acknowledge that loving the stranger is the bit we find harder and the bit we most need to be reminded about.
So what can we take from these laws about how to treat the stranger? First I think we can say that this absolutely includes refugees but isn't limited to them. This is about how we treat all people who have come from elsewhere. Economic migrants, international students, temporary workers, passing tourists...everyone. If you look at how the media represents those who come here, there often seems to be a kind of ranking system at work. White professionals from English speaking countries are fine because they are like us and they do something for us. The ones who are a different colour or speak a different language or need something from us, well they're a little more suspect. There's no such ranking system in these laws though. They cover everyone, regardless of who they are or where they have come from or why they have arrived, and that is how it should be. We are focusing on refugees this morning, so that is the language I will use for the moment, but it is good to bear that wider view in mind.
I think what these laws tell us above all is that we must treat refugees as ourselves, and that means loving them as ourselves. It means more than just tolerating their presence here, it means greeting them as people who once were strangers and now are neighbours, inviting them to join in with our culture and our celebrations and our lives. But these laws also remind us that refugees are vulnerable and have very practical needs, which we must help them to meet. Many refugees start their lives from scratch here, and we need to help them rebuild and flourish. We can do that through donating and fundraising and campaigning, as we already do, but we can also do that in person. We can give time to sit with people and hear their stories, to eat a meal with them or learn a new skill together. I visited the Leicester City of Sanctuary drop in a couple of months ago, and we have an open invitation to join them, to see what they do and get involved. I really encourage you to think about it.
So these laws are a really good start, but I think we can go further, or at least refine our understanding of what it means to love the stranger. I think we can learn about their culture and join their celebrations and share their lives, and we can recognise and receive the gifts they have to offer us, because they should not hide or lose those things, and we will find ourselves enriched by them. Although having said that, I think it is good for us to note that these laws put no conditions on those who come to live among the people, beyond following the law themselves. It is good to welcome and celebrate the contributions of refugees, as Refugee Week does, but such contributions are not a prerequisite for our welcome or our help. There are no good or bad refugees, no deserving or undeserving people. No one should need to prove their worth to earn our care.
Exodus 23:9 says “do not oppress the stranger because you were once strangers”, and that becomes a refrain throughout the Hebrew Bible. Those words remind me of a story I read last year, about a town in Bosnia called Bihac, whose residents had created a makeshift camp for refugees trying to cross the border into Croatia, with one local man turning his restaurant into a free kitchen. The town was under siege for 1200 days during the Bosnian War, so the people there knew hunger and hardship, and the enormous empathy they felt for those making the dangerous trek across Europe led them to act with compassion.
But of course it should not only be down to those who have experienced similar levels of trauma to help. It would be a sad indictment of our humanity if that were the case. Empathy is important though, in helping us to connect to one another, and while we may not know how it feels to be a refugee, we do know loss and fear and loneliness. If we can go from there and begin to imagine how it feels to leave everything and seek refuge in a strange place, then perhaps we will find ourselves opening our hearts and our arms a little wider. I know that we are already a church that deeply cares about those outside our walls, but we can always push ourselves to reach further and embrace more tightly and love more freely.
I’m not going to pretend that empathy is an easy thing to do. It means allowing ourselves to be seared by the heat of another’s trauma, and while that will never scar us as it has scarred the other, it will hurt deeply. There is a poem called Home about the refugee experience by a British-Somali poet called Warsan Shire which begins “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well”. It is brutal and I find it hard to even read that poem, let alone imagine what it would be like to live it, but I have to keep making myself go back to it. I will leave it to you to decide if you want to click through and read it, to allow it to break your heart so wide open that there is room in it for the other.
So no, empathy is not easy, but it is vital. And I know that because we are seeing what happens when people close themselves to the other, when they act out of hate or self interest instead of compassion and love. With over 70 million people displaced last year, the scale of the crisis is unimaginable, and some of the response is just as horrifying. In Libya, refugees are being sold at slave auctions. Representatives of the American government are standing in court and saying that children do not need soap or toothbrushes or beds in order to be properly cared for in detention centres. Let that sink in. In the last week, four toddlers have been taken to hospital from border camps in America because they have been held in such unsanitary conditions. Toddlers are being handed to ten year old girls because they are desperate to be held and no one else will bother with them. And while this is happening, the media is arguing over whether or not we can name these places for what they really are, which is concentration camps.
Perhaps you watched the BBC drama Years and Years, which finished last week. It took us fifteen years into the future, imagining a world in chaos. A far right populist party takes power, and it deliberately models its refugee detention centres on the concentration camps established by the British in the Boer War in South Africa, introducing infection and 'letting nature run its course' to control the population. It is horrifying, but it’s only a century or so into our past and only a few short steps into our future if we do not take a stand. I know that Stoneygate Baptist Church had a strong tradition of conscientious objection in the years before the Second World War, but I have also been told that we were established because of the pacifism of our founders. That was in 1901, during the Boer War. Perhaps it was those very concentration camps, the maltreatment of refugees, that they opposed so strongly that they built a new church on that principle. How fitting that we should honour our history and their passion by protecting the refugees of our own time.
We can feel so small and so useless when faced with a crisis of this scale, but an ocean is made of drops, and lots of small actions can build to something bigger. Just being aware of refugee stories is a really important start, as keeping them in your minds and in your hearts will keep them in your prayers and in your actions. As well as getting involved with City of Sanctuary (they're all over the country, so don't worry if you're reading this from outside Leicester) you can follow the work of organisations like Refugee Action (their website even has an option for you to sign up for email updates). And really simply, there are a number of campaigns that you can give your support to, links for which you will find below. If you know of any other ways we can act (especially with regards to the situation in America) please do add a comment or get in touch.
Petition to stop the selling and detention of refugees in Libya:
'Families Together' campaign to reunite refugee families: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/home-secretary-reunite-refugee-families
'Lift the Ban' campaign to allow refugees to work:
'Let Refugees Learn' campaign to improves access to English classes: