Last week I talked about two practical actions the church can take to encourage and enable refugees to remain close to their homes and homelands. This is a continuation of that thinking.
Practical Action 3: Make Aid Accessible
Closely connected to the issues of funding and meeting material and mental needs is the matter of accessibility. Is aid within reach of displaced people?
The World Food Programme recently suspended food aid to 170,000 people because it did not have the money to pay for it. Other sources of cheap, healthy foodstuffs aren’t always easy to come by. Similarly, half of the refugee families I visited in Lebanon have at least one sick family member, and with no insurance and exhausted savings, most are going without the medications they need because they aren’t available—at least at a price they can afford. A Palestinian refugee from Syria now living in a gathering (a Palestinian neighborhood) in southern Beirut told me she travels into the Syrian warscape every few weeks because it is the only place she can afford her treatment.
Inside Syria, well over four million Syrians are living in what are considered “hard to reach” areas, so even the aid that comes into the country usually doesn’t reach them. A friend of mine from Hama says that even if IDPs and vulnerable host community members could afford to buy fuel or medication at hugely inflated prices, it is oftentimes literally unavailable.
Negative coping mechanisms—selling assets, taking children out of school to work, marrying off teenage daughters, and, inevitably, sex-for-pay—are the fate of millions of refugees today. This is how many are compelled to deal with financial and material lack, and with lack of accessibility.
The issue is not only pumping money and resources into distant communities. It’s getting them into the hands of refugees. Proximity doesn’t always mean availability. If refugees are trapped by soldiers or environmental disaster, or if price points are too high, uprooted peoples have few choices. Mostly, they end up going without.
But the Church has long arms and open hands.
To make aid accessible to refugees everywhere, Western churches can and should partner with NGOs, local organizations, and with churches in difficult places. There are churches tucked away in burned-out neighborhoods in Syria and shot-up villages in Congo. Let’s be united with them. Even if we ourselves cannot—or are unwilling—to venture into dangerous or disparate communities where refugees gather, we must join hands with churches and agencies that are already there. We must meet people where they are, intentionally becoming neighbors, not waiting for neighbors to come to us.
And when governments or militias stand in the way of the delivery of aid, the Western Church—by virtue of its size, wealth, and pull—has the great privilege of access to the frontlines of diplomacy. We can influence governments and international organizations to make safe spaces for aid and to press for truces for humanitarian work. Increasingly, governments—including in North America—recognize the need for religious leaders to assist with diplomacy. The Catholic Church, for example, has had considerable diplomatic influence in Cuba and Congo, among other places. Orthodox Christians are shaping policy and human rights in former satellite countries of the Soviet Union. North American Protestants have enacted boycotts of illegal settlements in the West Bank and pressed for improved refugee care by governments and NGOs around the world. The Vatican has its own diplomatic corps and the US State Department even recently introduced an office for Religion and Global Affairs. The Church has a role in policy, and if we are not constantly leveraging for peace and life, we are not living up to our calling.
Accessibility should never be a reason refugees suffer. The Kingdom has total access, and its workings in the Church must move us to go far, hard places so that the children of God will have what they need. Just as we pray for the provision of our daily bread, let us be the answer to that prayer for millions more.
Practical Action 4: Visit and Live with Refugees
Disciples of Jesus of are rarely called to stay put. Even when we are meant to remain in our towns, we are not called to remain comfortable. Jesus not only lived, ate, and worked with society’s down-and-outers, he sought them out. The Church is blessed to have the same mission.
My guess is that most Christians are called to serve alongside the destitute, the prisoners, the widows and orphans, and the refugees in their city. This is not a once-in-a-while call; it’s a daily one. Others will be called to move elsewhere in the West, perhaps carried along by a job or educational opportunities. Still others will be pulled overseas.
Wherever you are, the Christian life is radically, gloriously contrary to the consumerist, convenient life of the North American rat race. You don’t have to move to the suburbs simply because the American Dream expects you to. You can move to the intercultural, interfaith neighborhood where dozens of languages are spoken and where exiles land. Christians must be there. Among tax collectors, prostitutes, gang members, and refugees—that is the home of the Church.
But that is not the end of it. There will also be those among us who know the Lord has laid on them an international call to service. Don’t resist that call. Go to the uprooted people of creation. Live in the slums and the refugee camps. Do medicine, practice counseling, manage construction, start small businesses, provide legal services, grow food, clean water, fix pipes, sweep garbage, pay rent in the same neighborhoods as so many millions of refugees find themselves.
To what extent can we be called servants when in our pockets are wanderlusting Western passports and pin codes to North American bank accounts? To what extent can we be called servants when we are economically more powerful, politically more influential, and academically more highly trained. It is possible, surely, but it requires hard work. This is always the eye of the needle.
If we are going to make ourselves like those we’re helping, if we’re going to incarnate Christ-like empathy, we must humble ourselves and go where the need is. Physical proximity is not everything, but it matters. It matters because it allows us to not only know there are needs, but also to see them—and feel them. It matters because organic friendship comes not through newsletters and photographs on social media, but through intimate, personal connection, the kind that requires living with others. It matters because Christ did it. He came down and became an alien to reach aliens.
Too many Christians never leave their zip code. The Western Church can and must do better.
Imagine what could be given. Imagine what could be gained. For refugees, for the Church, for creation, for the Kingdom.
There is no place you can go where God will not already be, where he has not been forever. If the Spirit calls you, he will go with you. By prayer and discernment, with fear and trembling, the Church can go not only to the spiritually lost, but also the physically displaced.
Maybe that means you.
Pull a Jesus. Uproot yourself from your comfortable life so you can live with those we need to serve.
It’s not crazy. It’s Christianity.
There are real, concrete steps the Church and its people can take toward providing aid to a world in need and turning the tide of refugeeism. These four are some of the best.
Before we move on, it will be helpful to note a psychological and spiritual guideline for the Church to do humanitarian aid well.
Give out of love.
Serving is our duty, but it is also our privilege. Charles Spurgeon said “Giving is true having.” Paul wrote that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
If the Church gives out of a sense of responsibility or habit, I would encourage it to keep giving, but also to reexamine its heart. By giving, we are part of the grand gospel narrative of loving our neighbors and enemies. By giving, we are doing a thing we were created to do. By giving, we shine the light of Christ, to ourselves and to the world.
Overflow with the joy that is yours, Church. Overflow with praise, and also with material support. How blessed the North American Church is—so that it can be a blessing to others, expecting nothing in return.
We can give even until it hurts. As we try to help those who are suffering, we ourselves must risk suffering, not only in solidarity, but to meet actual needs. Refugeeism is not a problem that will disappear with a few extra dollars, a few extra missionaries, or a few more distribution centers. It needs the emptying of treasuries and lifetimes of service. Such a price is the cost of true love, to sow seeds the fruit of which may be yet far off.
During Paul’s ministry, he took an offering in Antioch for his brothers in Jerusalem for famine relief. His offerings drew from the vaults of believers in urban centers in Europe and Asia, and delivered support to Palestinian Christians when they were in need, suffering deprivation and persecution. Surely, the tithers who gave their firstfruits had never met the Jerusalem Christians who would receive their aid, and yet, what a picture of the gospel! What happiness was theirs at the very opportunity to aid and strengthen their brothers and sisters.
Let the heart of the Western Church know that same gospel and feel an even greater happiness, for the glory of God and for the boundlessness of his good Kingdom.