Refugees part 2: Legalities and Love

I published a brief article through the Gospel Coalition on our church’s direct experience with the refugee crisis in Italia which was meant to encourage the church at large that there is some good news out there! The surprising thing which took place both here in Italia and the US was how quickly the negative comments began to fill the conversations from “Christians” who were angered by our outreach.

One of the themes which arose was that our church was disrespecting national borders set up by God (so we were disobeying God), that we were illegal for helping “illegals” (so we were disobeying the state), and that the church shouldn’t be involved in politics like this (so we were disobeying political correctness).

In response, I would like to share here that we were not disobeying the first two and really don’t mind breaking the third. Rather, we are seeking in our approach to have Gospel centrality and to be careful how Christ is presented while at the same time not compromising with the feelings del giorno of man before God.

Are national borders important?cloud-3074621_640

I would answer yes to that question as borders define civil law of a national sovereignty, but I don’t sense that is the real issue, at least for the church. We have never preached to throw down national borders and haven’t really heard of that being presented in like-minded churches. If that is an issue for you and your church community, I would be glad to explore it more with you. However, what I do see is the following argument being used somewhat as a straw man fallacy. Any outreach to any newly arrived immigrant or helpful initiative seems to be met with suspicion and then we are categorized as one of “those churches who just want to throw down borders and let everyone in.” Or, another commenter immediately shared how God in his law honors borders — as if we didn’t and don’t love God and his law.

The point is each country has their own immigration and border policies — and as long as they are humane and do not cause immediate risk or damage to human beings, then they should be respected. It is also good, Gospel witness to help others who need to comply with immigration laws if they’re willing to do so. We have encountered some who are unwilling to legalize their status choosing to “hide for a while” until more advantageous times. To those, we patiently offered correction but not membership.

Italia (up to this year) has had a more humane and “compassionate” policy than many countries. For example, one does not need to “touch” the shoreline to seek asylum in Italia; a sea rescue is also sufficient. In recent news, we have seen a more hard-line policy where the sea rescues have taken place but the ports have been closed to entry. Yes, the numbers of refugees entering Italia has dropped dramatically, but the interesting statistic is that the number of deaths at sea has still remained high proportionately. Think of the irony of the situation when the many Mediterranean cruise ships packed with vacationers pass over the spots of hundreds of drowning victims just hours and days before. And to twist the knife into the sadness further, most of the refugees have paid dearly to get on those doomed boats. They’re paying to be drowned, yet the human traffickers are still sending them north.

What happens, then, to those who do reach the ports and shores? That is an important question because Italy places them in a status of semi-sequestration for up to two years until their documents are approved or denied. In our experience, the vast majority do receive their proper papers and enter the society. Some are ready to enter the workforce and many are not.

Please note here: I acknowledge, first, our experience is not a “uniform” experience across all of Italia. We are reporting from the north where hundreds of refugees continue to arrive and other regions may or may not be similar. Second, I am speaking only to their entrance into Italia at this point before they may have broken any laws. I realize that there are riots and attacks by migrants in various cities of Italy for a number of different reasons. The laws are indifferent to race when they are broken, and the judgments or penalties should be applied equally. 

Therefore, in a legal sense, the refugees do have a limited permission window to stay, and the large majority being granted longer term permissions to sojourn. This is where we come into direct contact with the refugees. They are already here, and they are provisionally legal. So, if the requirements of the law have been met, there is no “civil” reason why we should withhold the Gospel of life from them. We are neither disobeying the State nor disobeying God’s great commission.

However, if we do ignore them and take up the popular sentiment all around us that they are all illegal (which is untrue), we will definitely disobey the Father. The truth of the situation of popular sentiment is not that they are all illegal, but rather, they are all unwanted.

A better way

For that reason, our Cristocentric approach is to be ambassadors of Heaven; pointing them to a better land where they are invited to enter. They may be unwanted by many around them in this new, European land and that is exactly how Jesus identifies deeply with them. Jesus came to his own people, and they denied his status (John 1:11). The rest of the Gospel of John chronicles how many different ways he was rejected all the way to the final, unjust one in the Cross. This is the message of good news which follows in John 1:12 — to all who will receive him, Jesus gives them the right to be called children of God. This is law and love together.

We want to show them how much they are wanted and how the Savior has already met the law, broken down the dividing wall, and thrown open his city gates — for them! This is news they have never heard before, and after the horrific experiences many of them have endured, it is truly good news.

To read part 1 of this series, please click here.

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Planting Ecclesiology as a way of life

Immediately apparent when commencing to plant ministries in Italy is that all people use the word church, but rarely anyone uses it biblically. The very idea of church here is something ‘private, cold, judgmental, obligatory, an event, passive, traditional, cultural, heavy, & Roman’. Therefore, we have a great crisis when it comes to the understanding of what actually constitutes a church.

Embedding Believersplanting ecclesiology

This is one of our major concerns, in that, if we enter a city and open a traditional church structure, it will be viewed through the cultural lens and automatically disregarded. Similar to the seasonal circus that comes to town, people in the general culture will ask, “What’s that?” And others will naturally respond, “Oh, I think that’s one of those foreign churches, evangelista or something…” Instantly, a perceived level of distance and safety is established.

However, if there are people who they know and have had experience with, the conversation might go a bit differently,

“Who are those people?” they might ask.
“Oh, that is the group that Daniele is a part of… you know Daniele, the mechanic that helps a lot of people with their cars over on Viale Venezia… His wife teaches some language classes and they run activities in the park with the kids.”
“Ya, that’s right — a classmate I went to school with works for him. It’s a bit surprising they opened a business in this crisis!”

We are not seeking to plant more institutions in post-catholic Europe, but rather, we emphasize planting people who are energized, holy, and evidentially part of the New City and the Christ culture. If the people of our Italian cities will find a refuge in Jesus, then, it will most likely come from people who have lived in their city with them through all of its positives, negatives, ups, and downs. These embedded believers do familiar-looking things, but they do them with an entirely different set of motives and attitudes.

“Church Work”

Embedded believers approach their lives and cities in an integral and theological way. Like an under-current that courses through their actions, they show gracious respect to local authorities but they reject that their sustenance comes from the state as their sovereign provider. Embedded believers are not getting all they can but giving all they can. In a suffocating economic market, demonstrating that you are not “on the take” but “living to serve” speaks loudly into people’s lives.

Furthermore, embedded believers are not demanding jobs, instead, they are developing them in the full realization that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all of its fullness.” With health, creativity, holy determination, persevering faith, and youth (life is said to begin at 40 in Italia) – their mission is pan-vocational because their theology is integral to all of life; impacting every aspect.

The Reformers of the 1500’s (especially Luther & Calvin) rediscovered this in their theology of work. One of their main emphasis was on the subject of consecration. They moved the emphasis off of the job or the talent and rested it upon the worker’s devotion to God. You could be a joyful, contented farmer or a deceptive, adulterous religious leader. The issue was not whether one was called as a religious leader versus called to farm. Rather, it was what kind of farmer or religious leader you actually were that made all the difference. To this day in Italia, the mindset lingers that work is unholyIt is a necessary evil and not a gift from God. Work should be avoided or oppressive and therefore, cheating others is rampant. Yet on the other hand, a person is more holy or powerful by the garments he wears or the buildings he enters. Life is divided into two categories: what to show (pride) and what to hide (pleasure).

“Home Work”

It is at this point where a marginalized, periphery church begins to touch the fabric of the city when she helps holy farmers, devoted teachers, and Christocentric entrepreneurs. Not only does the church assist these believers to establish their livelihoods, but she is also training them to grow up into the city through opening their homes for ministry as a regular rhythm of life. It is their gospel character on display throughout the city that makes them a community of light.

Embedded believers are not hidden behind their jobs where people cannot determine if they are truly kind or just trying to earn money through quality customer service. Their home is a refuge for seekers to come and find peace, and in turn, embedded believers are seekers who reach out to their cities in peace. I believe this balance of a ministering home coupled with a ministering business is critical to planting churches. It is a salty model because it does not stay confined to four walls of a comfortable structure. Integral home-life and work-life stimulate missional-life.

If you have read this far in the article, I am voicing some of our developing ministry philosophy as we face a church and market crisis here in southern Europe. I am not saying that this is a formula, but rather, an approach to life and work as missional theologians.

  • Have you experienced Life-work in this way? 
  • As you read this, would you have any helpful suggestions or comments?
  • How do you think an approach like this would impact where you live?

Food and Ministry: Problem 3

Ghanaian_food

I don’t even know how to spell it, but it sounds like “watch-it” and our Ghanaian church family members were excited about it. I’ve had Fufu, tasted red-red, and enjoyed plantanes & rice but watch-it was new. For weeks, we had been talking about our inter-cultural meal (read: awesome potluck) that we were planning and they wanted me to try their favorite dish. The day came. Their enthusiasm was high along with my anticipation — and the first bite…. well … ya …  I had to watch-it. It was completely foreign to me; an acquired taste in the making.

As I was working my way through that first bite, one of the brothers said, “Pastor, I like it with piccante sauce.” My eyes lit up as I mumbled through my watch-it, “Hmm…ya… div-me-thum-o-that … hmm… lots…ya… kee-it-comin.” Then, our dear sisters asked me, “Pa-pa, do you like it?” To which we westerners all respond, “It’s different, a bit unexpected.” And then they had a good laugh. 

So, would I eat watch-it again? Yes, because I like my brothers and sisters much more than I like the dishes that appeal to me. You might be saying, “But, it didn’t appeal to you!?” And you’re right. The dish appealed to them, and so it is part of their joy and identity. If I don’t watch-it, I’ll miss the ministry to the Africans because I’m only comfortable with the food of the Italians. 

Problem #3: Culture Comfort

Culture comfort with our food basically says that I’m not willing to try food that isn’t what I’m used to. The point is not just to try different, international foods but to see who those foods are connected to. A good bit of a person’s identity is wrapped up in their food. It is like a chain of links. If you reject someone’s food or type of food, you reject their culture. If you reject their culture, then you reject a part of them. 

Ministry Impact

Over the years of eating and ministry, we have noticed that more of our African brethren struggle with this problem. What happens when we concentrate on eating only the foods that are comfortable to us is that we communicate that we are just fine with keeping exclusively to ourselves. We actually begin to close down our thinking toward other groups of people and we strive to maintain our own cultural identity even more. Through the different “tastes” of food that we don’t like, we start to think of the people in this way too. We will say things like, “I don’t understand them” and we will seek to avoid the awkward experiences again. Therefore, even how we eat and share our food will stop being missional. Once we build our comfort zone, we will see others as invaders in our lives and not included. Then, to protect our comfort zone and identity, we will have to sneer at the intrusions or sneak away from them. 

Recommended Solution:

Try different foods that people make and offer you. Try the plates for the people. Go missional with food and see those tastes as gateways into people groups. Train yourself to be open to others and their cultures through food. Watch-it on purpose.

Food and Ministry: Problem 2

Jesus_feet_house_of_simon

“I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet…You gave me no kiss…You did not anoint my head with oil…he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Jesus (Luke 7:44-47)

How we conduct our meals and share our food does reflect on how we practice and give the Gospel. The passage above is from the account where Jesus is invited to Simon’s house. In the end, Simon does not have the good news of forgiveness (his meal conduct illustrated that), and Jesus does have the good news of love and forgiveness (his meal character revealed that). Both how we eat and who we eat with are ministry practices of grace.

Problem #2: Food-Pride

What’s the last meal that you sat down to that left you saying, “Hmm, that just wasn’t all that good?” The last meal like that which I can remember had chicken involved — I think it was chicken (kind of tasted like chicken). Now, I can whip up a great bowl of cereal or a tasty bag of chips, but cooking isn’t my forte. Eating is my forte. I’ve studied and practiced it for many hours over the course of many years. And, living in Italy is like eating in the big leagues. 

However, one hindrance in utilizing our food for ministry that I’ve encountered is that of a certain food-snobbery. The Italian kitchen does have bragging rights. Each region merits an appreciation for how it takes every-day ingredients to a whole new level. But when it is made evident at a meal that the pasta wasn’t cooked to the optimum consistency or a certain sauce lacks an ingredient or the after dinner coffee just doesn’t have the taste like mamma mia’s coffee — we are entering the realm of personal acceptance and gracelessness

Ministry Impact

Through the years of ministry, we have noticed that more of our Italian brethren have struggled with this problem. What happens when we concentrate on the standard of the food is we are communicating that we are just there for the superiority of our culture. Often, the message is subtle but it is there that you are not one of us. Anybody can practice this when they take too much pride in the food they have prepared and how they have prepared it. A meal that shares the ministry is one of inclusion. As Christians, we need to communicate that our table is open. Grace shows favor, welcome, appreciation, and forgiveness (pretty much like Jesus). Using food as an instrument of pride shows exclusivity, superiority, and how to be a jerk (pretty much like Simon).

Recommended Solution:

We should humble ourselves before others — through food. This means allowing the food to be what it is. If food becomes the focus, then simpler is better here or we will really close the doors on future opportunities to bring friends to Jesus because we want them to praise us first.

See the meal as a means of acceptance and of being equals at a table. The Christian church is greater than any one culture and our tables can model that. Talk more about the qualities of the persons at the meal than the qualities of the recipes and ingredients of the meal. Enjoy the people God has made more than the food or how it has been prepared.

 

The Integration Principle

Another church planting principle that we’ve noticed through the years has been that believers who are maturing in the Faith also broaden their acceptance of other people from different cultures. Whereas, in the Ingress Principle, people feel more welcome with others who are like them, this principle says that believers mature toward people who are unlike themselves. So, a church should seek to provide opportunities to integrate the cultures (that are welcoming others) into a Christ-centered, alternative culture. People usually need to be warmly-welcomed and meet Jesus before they begin to appreciate and care for others that are different than they are. At the same time, we don’t want to leave the church body to be isolated into separate cultures because the fullest expression of the Gospel will be lost and enculturated back into a certain people group.
For example, in the Ingress Principle, I mentioned a group of Chinese people who are being welcomed by a group of Germans who are believers. In time (could be long or short-term), when more Chinese people are also saved, they will come to see more of Jesus in the Germans and appreciate them as brothers and sisters. This will happen not just because they’re Germans, but because they are of Jesus. They will have a deep appreciation for the Germans because the Germans originally showed them the love of Jesus. So then, we want the Chinese to be together with the Germans so that, altogether, they can simply be Christians in God’s family. These principles of welcoming (ingress) and maturing (integration) will repeat themselves through the joy of outreach and evangelism.