For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
When I arrived as the minister at Brunswick Uniting Church there was a sign in the window that said ‘Jesus was a refugee’ – a powerful statement to make in the current climate.
Jesus was also a ‘stranger in Egypt’ like the people of Israel before him (Matthew 1:13, Deuteronomy 10:19). And in his ministry he demonstrated true welcome and hospitality to outsiders.
More than that, he received their hospitality in return, making the Pharisees and scribes grumble “This person welcomes outsiders (sinners) and eats with them!” (Luke 15:1)
Jesus is the welcomer who in turn looks for our welcome of him.
In the early days of my ministry at Brunswick, I began attending the community meals put on by the Asylum Seeker Welcome Centre which operates out of our buildings.
There I heard the stories of many who had braved the sea in boats to find sanctuary. I was shown great hospitality by asylum seekers who cooked the meals each week.
I was given a big hearted welcome in my own church by those whom our nation is rejecting with small minded fear. Did I meet God in that shared hospitality?
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:35)
In June 2013 we devoted a month to a series of worship services and events called ‘Boundless Plains’ – we learnt about, discussed, lamented and protested the plight of asylum seekers in Indonesia and Australia.
Around this time we noticed asylum seekers beginning to attend our services.
We purchased Persian bibles and began a weekly bible study with a translator. Soon one man requested baptism and in due course a very moving bilingual ceremony was held. Christ the welcomer welcomed one of his own.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7)
In May 2014 I conducted a wedding with fewer guests than any wedding I have ever performed. It comprised the couple, a translator (who doubled as a witness) and the cousin of the groom.
The couple had both come to Australia by boat seeking asylum and had been in detention together. I offered to marry them on a Sunday morning during a worship service so that our congregation could all support and rejoice with them in their new beginning.
But the suggestion was too daunting for these shy and private people who felt the added stress of their lack of English. Instead the congregation contributed generously towards the translation of their identity documents and a wedding gift. And I now feel privileged to have participated in a ceremony most moving in its intimacy. God wept tears of joy in the love expressed there.
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)
At the ecumenical Pentecost service for the combined churches of Brunswick this year, our speaker was Pastor Tri Nguyen from the Brunswick Baptist Church.
Earlier this year Tri walked from Brunswick to Canberra towing a replica of the boat in which he and his father escaped from Vietnam in 1982. His purpose was to say thank you to Australia for the gift of refuge, hospitality and care that he received as a child.
In response, the combined churches decided to produce banners to hang on their buildings saying: ‘Brunswick Christian Churches welcome Asylum Seekers and Refugees’.
Now every different church in Brunswick proclaims this message with one voice. Do I hear God speaking with us?
And the Word became flesh and sought shelter, pitching his tent among us… (John 1:14)
We recently baptised four asylum seekers. As we did, I reflected on the one who was so profligate with the giving and receiving of hospitality that it led to his death.
Jesus still comes, the holy visitor approaching our city, our land, and the territories excised from the migration zone of our souls – he comes with arms of love spread wide looking to be embraced by us.
Perhaps there are places in us that would have him turn back.
“No, go back to where you came from! You challenge my equilibrium, my security, I am afraid of you, and of how you might make me change.”
But he isn’t stopping. Jesus was a refugee and Jesus still is a refugee. How will we respond to him?
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Luke 10:8-10).
Rev Ian Ferguson