Pushed into Deep Waters: Migrants, Refugees, and the Mission of God

by Robert Hamd

A Catalytic Moment

I first learned about Sami* many years ago when a dear friend of mine came to me, pleading for my help. Sami had been languishing in a Lebanese jail for months without any due process. His crime? A lapsed residency permit. Lebanese police routinely stop African and Asian migrants, and refugee men and women demanding to see their residency papers (ikama). In many cases, poor and vulnerable people do not have proper papers, and when Sami was stopped, he had two choices: pay the “freedom fee” or go to jail. Unable to come up with the $600 dollars needed to secure his release, he found himself in a cold, dank, and dark freeway underpass structure that was converted into a jail by Lebanese Internal Security.

What could I do? I longed to help Sami, but I felt powerless. My faith in Christ, grounded on sound historic Protestant Reformed theology, lacked the theological teeth to move me beyond abstract ideas and propositional truths into real, veracity-filled action. I had all the right teachings, preached and taught biblical lessons, but remained isolated from the grim realities that millions of vulnerable poor migrants and refugees face every day.

God graciously peeled away my blinders when I visited Sami for the first time. As we talked, I began to see the human face of vulnerable people everywhere suffering from violence.  The scandal of millions of homeless, displaced, sex-trafficked sufferers languishing in makeshift jails, waiting for a justice that may never come became a stark reality before me.  It was Sami’s warm smile and belief that I could help him that pushed me into deep waters: I was challenged by faith to do more—be more—act more in the name of Jesus!

A Contextual Concern

Today, many migrants, refugees, and displaced peoples are not welcomed nor find a hospitable environment in their adoptive homes. Approximately 255 million people – or one out of every 33 people around the world – are living away from their homelands. Approximately 42 million are forcibly uprooted, including 16 million refugees and 26 million people who are internally displaced.  According to the UN, the Syrian crisis has forced four million to seek sanctuary in neighboring countries and internally displaced 7.6 million from their homes.  The issue has become so far-reaching that some scholars refer to our own times as “the age of migration.”

Course Correction

Witnessing the concealed world of the poor broke me of my abstract ideas and propositional truths and directed me on an entirely new trajectory to seek the Triune God who defies injustices and extends mercy. If violence divided human beings where the strong oppress the weak, then surely God sends his people who give their allegiance to Christ on a great missional campaign to confront violence, war, poverty and injustice and embody what it means to be a Christian—a follower of Jesus.

Theological Foundations

Faith must inspire and provoke transformative action.  Over the years, since encountering Sami, I found it helpful to develop a four-fold biblical perspective—a statement of faith, of sorts, to guide my faith and practice and push me towards a robust participation in God’s mission.

I strongly believe in the imago Dei (image of God), that human dignity is deeply rooted throughout the canonical biblical narrative.  Genesis introduces the reader to an overriding theme that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9), and, therefore, all human beings have value and worth. The theological concept of imago Dei is a defining theological anchor that underpins all Christian communities.  All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and, therefore, must be protected from violence.

The notion of imago Dei throughout the Old Testament narrative becomes crystallized in the New Testament through the incarnation. In the incarnation, Christ is the perfect embodiment of the imago Dei and through his life, and ministry, he inaugurates the Kingdom of God and redeems humanity back to God by restoring what was lost in the fall (Gen. 3). Through the verbum Dei (Word of God), with emphasis on the incarnation, Jesus enters the reality of a broken and fallen human condition in order to overturn sin’s power and return humanity back to God (Lk. 19:10).

In the verbum Dei, there is a divine movement whereby God crosses all borders and boundaries of human sin and evil to demonstrate his love on the cross that pays the whole price. Jesus takes on the form of a slave (Phil. 2) and enters into the fallen human condition that millions find themselves in as forced laborers and slaves. The verbum Dei calls me to do more and trust God to overcome the forces of sin and evil.

Through the missio Dei (mission of God), the central dimension of the life of the church is made clear. The church is missionary by nature and is called to extend God’s reconciliation to all humanity by participating in the Spirit’s work.  The missio Dei teaches me that it’s not my exclusive mission, backed by my particular tradition, to create Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant Christians.  Rather, the missio Dei is God’s mission that calls us to be faithful witnesses of the whole gospel for the whole world through the whole church.

The visio Dei (vision of God), compels me to see the world through the lens of God: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8).  The visio Dei inspires me to move beyond my own limitations propelled toward a renewed vision of God that calls me to “spend [my]self in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Is. 58: 10a), ultimately impacting Christian communities, which are in turn called to participate in the missio Dei and impact the world here and now.

This four-fold framework keeps me from remaining complacent, withdrawn, and unengaged. In other words, it challenges me to see the world as God sees it, confronts deeply-held assumptions while calling me in confronting violence and injustice for the glory of God.

“Let Him Pass”

When I turned into my office, there he was, clutching a small piece of paper: a document that read laissez-passer, loosely translated “let him pass.”  Sami jumped to his feet, and with tears embraced me, thanking me again and again, “Shukran, Assis” (thank you, Pastor).

I couldn’t help it at first: I was stunned.  I stood in disbelief. Could this be true? Sami is free? I didn’t think our small church’s efforts could do anything to help. But God, in his mercy, thrust us out from the safety of our church walls into the shadows of hidden violence where the Samis of the world languish today. This experience taught me the true essence of: “[w]hat good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jam. 2: 14-17).

Today, Sami and his wife live in Stockholm, Sweden, as free people enjoying the benefits of citizenship. They’ve experienced the words of Jesus, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of least of these my brothers [and sisters], you did it to me” (Mt. 25: 40). They hope one day to return to their home country as free people.

Robert Hamd has served as a missionary, pastor, and educator since 1994 in Amman, Jordan; Marseilles, France; and Beirut, Lebanon. He currently serves as executive director of The Philemon Project, a joint ministry project with the National Evangelical Church of Beirut and The Evangelical Presbyterian Church’s World Outreach. In addition, Robert recently joined the IMES team as Holistic Formation Faculty for the MENA Cultures module of our Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. 

___________________

*Name changed to protect his identity.

7 thoughts on “Pushed into Deep Waters: Migrants, Refugees, and the Mission of God

  1. Thank you….important challenge for each of us, that all too often gets ignored. May we each reach out wherever we are and minister to those in need. Lord, give us wisdom and sensitivity to obey Your voice as you lead us daily to those in need.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Robert. Faithfully spoken words are light in the darkness. Glad to hear Sami made it to Sweden, and happy to hear there are good Samaritans all around the world.

  3. Thank you for such a good theological explanation for why we should serve the world’s many victims of bigotry and rigid systems. I feel certain of the prejudice behind Sami’s situation, because I (a blond American) once carelessly let my residence permit lapse. This was discovered at the Beirut airport. I was permitted to pay a ridiculously small fine and go my way.

    • Thank you for sharing your comment. Very enlightening. Sadly, the Lebanese context fosters prejudice and discrimination. Nevertheless, I am encouraged to see new coalitions willing to challenge the status quo.

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