Robert Strong (OM Netherlands) on the experience of opening the church building to offer tea and a safe place changes the perspective of Christians and creates opportunities to speak about God.
AUTHOR Joel Forster , Belén Díaz
Many Christians in Europe believe the arrival of asylum seekers to their countries, cities and neighbourhoods, is not a threat but an opportunity. Of course, meeting families coming from a very different cultural background can be challenging, and many questions of identity come up. But regular church members with no experience at all can make a massive difference in the life of a refugee, believes Robert Strong (OM Netherlands). He has lived in the Middle East for many years, knows Arabic cultures well and says it is much easier to connect with refugees and asylum seekers than what most Christian believers think. Question. Can you share an example of how your local church got involved with refugees? Answer. Just about a month and a half ago, in December 2015, my wife and I noticed that a lot of the refugees that are living in a camp outside of our town go shopping at the Lidl every Tuesday. Our church happens to be 200 meters away from that place, so we though: “What can we do?” The church is empty on Tuesdays, the refugees are all over the place, the Lidl doesn’t know what to do with them, because they hang out, they are waiting for taxis, they are trying to get their bikes all geared up, back to the village where they are living, which is 10 km away. It’s rainy, it’s cold… So, we asked: “What can we do?” We made a short proposal to our church. Why don’t we open our church, give them coffee, tea, sit down and listen to their stories, play games, give them a place where they can rest, maybe use the bathroom; before they go back to the camp? So we asked the church board, and they said: “Yes, you can start.” So at the beginning of January, we started, and the first day, we had 30 visitors. People just loved it! And since then, every Tuesday people have been coming, people have been coming back, and the beautiful thing is that it is not us doing this, but the whole church got engaged. People that felt they would not be ready to do evangelism on the street, are now making coffee, playing games, chess games with refugees in our church, and having a very, very good time. Now, they give personal attention and start to build relationships with these refugees, and that is step number one of sharing God’s love for these people. So we are very encouraged, because we see that all of the sudden the church is coming alive and people start to be passionate about reaching out to refugees. It was not very difficult, it was just opening a door and saying “welcome.” Q. What are the first steps to connect with refugees in the region one lives? A. First of all, talk to a foreigner. I have talked to many, and lots have said: “the Dutch people don’t talk to us, they just look”. They do want to engage, they are real people, with real needs, and they also have a desire to be loved, to be accepted. Even saying hello in their own language, perhaps learning one or two words in Arabic, or Farsi and say to that refugee who comes to you country: “Hello and welcome in the Netherlands or welcome in Spain”, is a big step. That will be their first heart connection with a refugee. Learning a few words in their language will help. And approach them. For them that’s normal, for us here in the West it is not normal. I sit in the bus and nobody speaks with one another, but in an Eastern country it is normal to talk with one another. So, please, just step out of your own comfort zone and greet people, that is a simple start. And then, if you have a facility, open it up. Pour coffee, drink tea, play a game. A lot of people in our church do not speak English or Arabic, but they are having a jolly good time with the refugees, because they are teaching them Dutch. Playing a board game… anybody can do it! Q. How can we share the Good News about Jesus with these people with a Muslim background? A. For refugees with a Muslim background, it is very normal to talk about religion, and for them God is real. For many Westerners that is not the case. So it is easy to talk to them and with them about their faith. It is also very easy to ask them: “Can I pray for you?”, it is a very opening question, and often they would be very happy for you to pray for them. Obviously, in our little project, people are already coming into our church. So one day, a guy said: “Hey, you know, that cross, I see it always with Christians, tell me more about it”, and there we have an opportunity to talk. We have free literature available, we have the opportunity for them to come to church, we have church members ready to pick them up from the refugee centre, to attend church on Sunday morning. There are little things you can do, but it is definitely being open and listening, and not being scared of having a conversation about God, because for many Muslims that is normal. The “Refugees in Europe” series of articles is the fruit of a cooperation between Evangelical Focus, the Refugee Highway Partnership in Europe and the EEA Hope for Europe – Refugees group.