Report EEA General Assembly
5-8 October 2015, Schwäbisch Gmund, Germany
European Christians need to step out of their comfort zones to embrace strangers, be it new arrivals or existing neighbours of different ethnicity, culture or faith.
This exhortation was expressed in a call to action
issued by leaders from thirty European nations to fellow believers at the annual General Assembly of the European Evangelical Alliance in Schwäbisch Gmünd near Stuttgart last week, October 5-8.
The over eighty representatives, gathered around the theme ‘From Exclusion to Inclusion’. This theme had been set in November last year. It was amazing how well it fitted with the present refugee challenges in Europe and shared reports of a widespread grassroots response across Europe of love and compassion towards new waves of migrants.
Individuals, families, churches and organisations from all Christian traditions were reportedly engaged in multiple activities including transit stations, reception centres, emergency rescue, political advocacy, awareness-raising and much more.
Yet ethnic fear and prejudice could lurk in everyone’s heart, as the EEA General Secretary, Thomas Bucher, confessed in his opening greeting to the assembly. He echoed the view of opening speaker David Wise that racism needed to be addressed in ourselves time and again. As pastor of Greenford Baptist Church in London, Wise described the journey of his formerly all-white congregation towards embracing some 45 nationalities today. The local congregation was to be a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God, he said. This meant churches should reflect now the multi-ethnicity depicted in Revelation 7:9, a scenario of all peoples worshipping before the throne together. There was only one race, he emphasised, the human race expressed in many ethnicities.
Politics of dignity
A clear implication emerged from the discussions and contributions that the current refugee crisis would demand long term engagement for many beyond their current comfort zones.
Peter Magnusson, of Jönköping in Sweden, urged his listeners to be driven by truth and love, not by fear, as he described his own move into a migrant-majority suburb to pioneer models of integration.
“We need to get to the migrants first with love, or others will manipulate them into extremism,” he warned. Among the programmes he had started to meet the needs of the local youth were a driving school for Middle Eastern girls, a drop-in centre offering help for youth in studies and life-skills, an employability course and a leadership development programme for 16-25 year-olds. Consistent servanthood over years had built trust and respect among both the migrant families and the secular authorities for Magnusson and his team.
In his provocative daily Bible studies, Dr Chawkat Moucarry, an Arab-Syrian theologian born in Aleppo, highlighted God’s heart for the outsider: Hagar (whose name meant ‘migrant’); Naaman, the Syrian general whom God healed; and the Samaritans in their various encounters with Jesus. If God did not discriminate against the outsider, neither should we, he reasoned.
Moucarry cited a recent editorial from The Economist magazine with a heading taken from Deuteronomy 10:19: Love ye the stranger. ‘There are surely limits to how many migrants any society will accept,’ he read. ‘But the numbers Europe proposes to receive do not begin to breach them. The boundaries of social tolerance are fuzzy. They change with time and circumstance and leadership. Willkommenskultur shows that the people of Europe are more welcoming than their nervous politicians assume. The politics of fear can be trumped by the politics of dignity.’
Hungarian Istvan Orvath described the spontaneous response of many local believers to the sudden influx of Syrian refugees in his own country, bringing blankets, clothes, toiletries and food to the railway stations and border zones, often in stark contrast to the attitude of the authorities as reported in the world’s media. While the Ottoman experience had taught Hungarians to equate the stranger with danger, he said, many Christians were grasping the opportunity to show compassion, offering to pray for those who had experienced so much trauma.
Martin Schaser, a Romanian living in Austria, showed in very practical ways what it takes to overcome resistance on the side of migrant churches to engage with the host culture and build a welcoming and truly multi-ethnic church. He showed with his example how young, second-generation youth could be kept within the church as they felt more comfortable in a setting of a multi-ethnic church.
Englishman Bob Hitching, working in Central and Eastern Europe among Roma communities, made a heart-felt plea to include these long-ostracised peoples in the Evangelical community and to offer them a place of belonging. Europe today he suggested resembled the parable of the king who invited many guests to his feast, but few accepted. This was the time to bring in the outcasts, he suggested, including the Roma.
Avi Snyder, raised as a conservative Jew and now heading Jews for Jesus in Europe, urged a response of forgiveness to the rising tide of xenophobia and antisemitism in Europe today.
The assembly provided the occasion to introduce the new Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, Bishop Efraim Tendero, from the Philippines. Addressing a reception hosted by the Landesbischof of Wuerttemberg, Dr. Frank July, Bishop Ef (as he is generally called) said the contemporary challenges of extremism and militarism were eclipsed by the challenge of nominalism.
On the final evening, a brief presentation of the story of the Hope for Europe (HFE) movement preceded the transfer of the chairmanship of the HFE Round Table from Jeff Fountain to Thomas Bucher. The movement had nurtured for over two decades more than twenty networks linking ministries across Europe for fellowship and mutual support; had organised two large European congresses, HOPE.21 (2002) and HOPE.11 (2011); and had initiated the annual HOPE Award presented to persons and movements bringing hope.
This in turn led to the presentation of the 24th HOPE Award to Peter Magnusson, a choice marked by spontaneous applause in recognition of the hope and inclusion his ministry has brought to outsiders in Sweden.
written by Jeff Fountain