Touching the Heart of a Refugee

by Kathryn Kraft

Zahle church

A few weeks ago, I was sharing with a friend at my church in London about my research with churches in Lebanon. As Rupen Das described in a post several months ago, many churches in Lebanon are providing assistance including food, blankets, clothing, or education, to refugees, most of whom are from Syria. They also engage refugees in a variety of other social and religious activities within the everyday life of the church. Churches are doing this as an expression of Christ’s love for all people, and out of an understanding of what it means to be “Church” in the world today.

Then I told my friend that one of the most interesting things about how churches are assisting refugees, is that they are doing more than just providing life-saving material aid. There is a deeper element to what they are doing. For example, even though most Syrian refugees are Muslim, new friendships are being built between them and Lebanese Christian church members. For many, this is the first time they become friends with someone of a different religious tradition. In addition, refugees are learning new skills and having the opportunity to engage in different types of activities than they ever did back home. These might include literacy, artisan crafts, or the Bible. In all these ways and more, churches are seeking to meet the most urgent and deeply-felt needs of the refugees they serve.

My friend then commented, “So in other words, the churches are doing good work, but they aren’t having any kind of spiritual impact?”

To which I responded in protest: “No! This is spiritual impact!” I sensed a degree of hope and joy when refugees described the assistance they were receiving from churches, and surely there is something inherently spiritual about hope and joy!

But I find I lack a vocabulary for explaining how Christians can have a spiritual impact in the lives of others, without any pretence of forcing them to become Christians. We might say that the love of Christ can touch all hearts, but such a statement feels somehow abstract. So, as I seek a vocabulary to capture how churches in Lebanon can be engaging spiritually in the lives of refugees in a sensitive and needs-responsive way, I want to describe a few ways in which I see churches touching people’s hearts on a spiritual level, crossing religious divides as they do so:

1) Most churches have volunteers, usually Lebanese Christians who are members of the church, visiting refugees in their homes on a regular basis. This is considered good practice in humanitarian aid provision, because the volunteers can verify that the families really are struggling and need assistance, and that they actually use the assistance they receive. But it is also a means of building relationships and trust. Many refugees are scared to be honest with fellow refugees, because war is still raging in their home country and they aren’t sure whom they can trust. They may have seen or experienced intense suffering or violence and continue to carry this weight in their heart: after all, telling our stories is therapeutic. Having a new friend, someone who is not connected to their family or to their problems back home, often means having one person with whom they can share, cry and laugh freely. One Lebanese Christian woman, for example, told me that she had become close friends with a young Syrian bride, who was separated from her own parents and didn’t feel very comfortable around her in-laws. This young woman was always excited when her new Lebanese friend came to visit, and quickly opened up about her struggle and hopes.

2) Many refugees told me that they love going to church. They feel it is a peaceful building, and when they step through the doors, they begin to relax. It provides a space of refuge in a life otherwise marked by myriad stresses including trauma, poverty, discrimination, and worry for the wellbeing of family members. A pastor told me that he knows of Syrian Muslims who walk half an hour every week to come to church, just in order to touch the wall and have a few moments of rest.

3) Some Lebanese church members find themselves praying regularly with refugees. Many volunteers on home visits have a moment of prayer at the end of their visit. Others sit down with refugees in the church building and, after talking about their material needs and their concerns regarding details such as their children’s education or their husband’s unemployment, they take a few minutes to pray about those needs with the refugees. There is something deeply spiritual about together beseeching God in our moments of deepest need.

4) Life as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon is, often, quite boring and listless. Many refugees live in cramped quarters, a one-room shelter for a family of five or more. The children are likely to be out of school. The parents are unlikely to have found employment. They all might be scared to venture out too often due to fear of harassment on the streets. Their extended family and friends from back home are all far away, so they have no social network. Church activities helps break that monotony. They give people somewhere to go and something to do. One Syrian woman told me that every Sunday she gives her children a bath and gets them all dressed up to attend a meeting at church; it is the main social event on their calendar. Many refugees have made new friends at church, and some refugees attend several meetings a week at church. This new routine gives their lives a sliver of meaning, something much appreciated when everything else feels so empty and monotonous. There may be other activities that refugees could engage in, rather than church, but many find a community at church, and enjoy participating in church-sponsored activities.

When talking about humanitarian crises, such as the fall-out of war in Syria, in which millions of people have lost their homes and now struggle to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, it is important to meet people’s urgent material and physical needs. Churches are to be commended for helping refugees find food, shelter and other basic needs. But it is not enough. Their spirits also need care, something that people of faith understand well. As the Body of Christ transmits hope and love in a world where so many people are suffering so deeply, they are meeting the felt needs of the people they are serving. Also, I want people who attend churches in Lebanon or in London or anywhere, to see the spiritual impact they can have.

6 thoughts on “Touching the Heart of a Refugee

  1. Very well said. I think you are absolutely right Kathryn. The tendency to separate the spiritual from the physical is to be resisted I think. This practical work of the Lebanese churches is all spiritual work! Indeed, I think this immediate and tailored love/help really IS sharing the Gospel (even if without words). To only help/love someone because you have a hidden agenda of wanting a profession of faith in Jesus seems conditional, and dare I say, not really honest. It’s limited and can be seen through. Helping because you simply care and want to share the love of Christ seems better. And surely, by the grace of God and with the help of the Holy Spirit, they will have the opportunity to speak of the One we love, and perhaps be asked for help in getting to know Him better. Blessing be upon you and your friends

    • Thanks so much for this! I absolutely agree with you that this is “sharing the Gospel”, and in many cases, in a way that is more meaningful to the refugees they serve, than more verbal or intellectual presentations of Gospel would be.

  2. Thank you, Kathryn…sometimes just being there for people and listening to their stories is the deepest
    form of ministry for people who’s lives have been shattered with terror and grieve.

  3. All, I really appreciate this thoughtful write-up. I loved the insights into building trust, providing opportunity for rest, diversion and new skill-building. So essential in this complex situation.

    I do have a suggestion: The use of the Discovery Bible Study resource (simple inductive study for literate and oral culture) or other similar resources would lead to significant numbers of new Christ Followers and small groups for disciple-making and outreach among peers in this beautiful stream of service and care. We are called to be and to develop disciple makers right along with our credibly spiritual Great Commandment services. I see room for both/and.

    ABTS has recent graduates that are very effective in this area and could be (and likely are) helpful to you.

    Warmly, Steve Hoffman

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Thank you so much for this comment. Some churches are indeed already doing Bible studies, including DBS and others, with refugees. What I find so exciting about this, though, is that, through this ministry, people’s hearts are being touched and transformed even though few may be calling themselves “Christ Followers.”

      I have been particularly impressed by the sensitivity and wisdom of many church volunteers in understanding what the heartfelt needs are in the lives of the refugees to whom they minister, and responding with sensitivity, seeking to depend on the prompting of Christ.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s