Refugees part 4: Don’t Romanticize the Work

Dark eyes and hearts

A missions trip to work with the refugees sounds so humanitarian, so helpful, doesn’t it? However, the actual work is far from “glorious”. Don’t get me wrong, the result of working in the pain-filled process is glorious — the reconciliation of sinful men and women into loving, Father-adoring children through the work of Christ Jesus. I speak of heavenly glory; the glory of the upside-down story where God shines through from the darkest corners of life. . . . . but the earthly work to arrive at the heavenly glory is not for fun-seekers or resumé-builders. It is work which conforms to and identifies with the Cross.

In the experience of our team, the most frequent and challenging question we have asked in these early years is, who are we doing this for? The work in the camps challenges us at our most basic human level. There, we are dramatically confronted with what it means to be a human being. Month after month, our men encounter wave upon wave of trouble. As each wave of trial and trouble passes over us, we see another layer of human wreckage in its wake — and another layer of Gospel character which needs work in our own lives is exposed. If a Christian does Gospel work among our new immigrant friends, even for a short time, and they do not walk away from the camp saying, “Oh Lord, I’m just a sinner saved by grace,” then something is fundamentally wrong with their theology.

Why We Do Anything At All

One might ask after reading the above paragraphs, “Then why do anything at all? It seems like it is such a futile endeavor.” And yes, while the process is long, arduous, and pain-filled, each initiative we do is pointing to something greater than itself; a hope beyond. Here are 3 reasons why we consider investing in these initiatives as a worthy endeavor:

  1. We do initiatives to help them with life skills and development. As I mentioned before, many of the men have good energy and are eager to work, but they lack the necessary skills to be of much benefit to a European context. In most cases, that is no fault of their own. It may be their parents had no more money to send them to school, or there were no education programs where they lived. So, full of energy and nothing good to do with it, they left. We are striving to put together initiatives which help them understand the safety measures, industrial theory, and working environments of Italia which are quite different from their various homelands and often different from other European nations.
  2. We do initiatives to build relationships for the gospel. The initiatives are the platforms for Christian love, and this is how the gospel works in every sphere of life. Often, gospel proclamation flows quite naturally from Gospel service. The men ask us all kinds of spiritual questions after they’ve seen our intentionality to serve and help them. In fact, the staff of the Catholic association running one of the camps in a Roman convent have begun to ask us for spiritual counsel and answers. We do everything for free, from a fountain of grace, and that provokes questions.
  3. We do initiatives to welcome God into Italia. I know this sounds a bit strange, but hear me out. Jesus brought a small child into his band of disciples to teach them. The disciples had been having one of their favorite arguments and playing one more round of “Who is the Greatest?” It seems they really liked that game. Bringing the child up into his arms as an object lesson, Jesus said (paraphrasing Mark 9:33-37), “The greatest will be found with the smallest, the least of all. Receive someone like this (no status) in my name, and you will be receiving me. Now, if you receive me, you will also receive the one who sent me — and that’s the greatest!” God is found among the struggling and hurting more than the wealthy and self-satisfied. We do initiatives because those initiatives draw us into the place where the Father loves to show up and distribute grace. The struggle is worth it because our King is worth it.

What we Encounter

A brother in our ministry who has had a good amount of hands-on experience with the men in the camps put together a list for us to realize what we often encounter in the work. The following list will de-romanticize any kind of thinking that we (whoever we are) will save them. No, we need something — no, someone — who can go deeper than any of us can and transform such incredible wickedness and soul-destruction into healthy children of God.

  • Prosperity Gospel
  • spirit and ancestor worship
  • Animism – the control of localized spirits to obtain blessings
  • Physical trauma
  • Mental trauma
  • human slavery
  • forced criminality
  • Families left behind
  • War
  • Genocide (both inflicted and victims of)
  • Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism — all works-saving religions and beliefs
  • deep distrust
  • Womanizing & pornography
  • Fatherless and orphaned
  • Mother with siblings from multiple men
  • Sex trafficking
  • Broken relationships
  • Greed
  • Smuggling
  • Laziness and no trained work-ethic
  • Cultural timeliness (extreme tardiness)
  • Desire to be like kings and/or tribal chiefs
  • Illiteracy and lack of education (reading, writing, speaking)
  • Majority are young and lacking life skills and experience
  • Internet/Facebook identity and image management
  • Escape based on lies
  • Medical Problems
  • Marital Problems
  • Fatherless Children
  • Desperation and depression
  • Language challenges (eg. learning Italian or other European languages)

Upon arrival, other struggles and problems begin to arise:

  • There is a deep belief that this country (or the next) is the promised land
  • They lose early enthusiasm to seek work and learn the language as depression increases.
  • Loss of motivation to establish the critical basics — for example, wanting to make money without learning the necessary work or language skills first.
  • Pressure increases to make money and send it back to family and tribe.
  • a false sense of entitlement increases
  • Islamic and Prosperity-gospel theologies polarize men and create strong resistance
  • Religious activity becomes a mask for personal ambition. There’s a strong sense of doing religious things to get God to make them money.
  • Camps are only meeting minimal needs for two years or more and not truly setting the refugees up to successfully achieve work and permanent residence

Enduring Negative Effects and Dangers

  • False documentation — there is a black market where men pay thousands to take on the identity of someone else.
  • Begging — due to the lack of small job opportunities and their lack of skill or will to work toward something more stable, a number resort to begging on the street or selling small items (often for those connected with organized crime).
  • Homelessness — if you don’t have some sort of official income, you cannot obtain a housing rental contract. So, you either pay someone else for a room or become homeless. As the amount of men exiting the camps increases in this next year, this could become a hardship in numerous cities.
  • Petty criminality — begins with stealing small things or running some kind of false marketing claim or false work. Theft and corruption only increase over time.
  • Remaining illegal within the country and hiding under the radar
  • Hatred grows and men become more susceptible to evil, radicalizing ideas.

If you take a few minutes and thoughtfully consider the scenarios we are facing, you will immediately have a missionary prayer list on your hands. If you’ve desired to pray more precisely about life-changing requests, then put your gloves on, lean into the Lord, and open some doors to the Light of the World for us! It will be a delight to share stories with you where your prayers have been heard and answered.

Click here if you would like to read part 3 of this series.

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Refugees part 3: 4 ways a Christian can miss the point on immigration

The news media is a problem for western Christians; not because of its bias against godly ethics but because of Christians wholesale ingestion of news commentary. I know, that was a broad statement and not true of every Christian. However, would you give it some thought? How many voices do Christians listen to (or read) in a given day? And what are the sources of these voices — dead men or the living God? I would suggest that many Christians have a problem parroting more of what they’ve heard on the news media than what they’ve heard through God’s Word. This problem is most evident when it comes to hot-button “social” issues such as immigration.

Now, the call to the Christian is to guard our hearts for what is coming in and out, and to let our speech be seasoned with grace (others can “taste” the grace in the words we use). We should be speaking as “other-worldly” people. Yet, so oftenScreen Shot 2018-08-17 at 1.43.48 PM when a difficult issue arises, opinion trumps grace. So, here are 4 signs which can test and reveal if we are dead-men’s parrots or life-giving prophets:

  1. The use of dehumanizing language: I’m probably going to explore this one with another post altogether. This sign is so subtle because it stays in the realm of “solving a problem.” You see, the immigrant people are more a problem to be resolved than a people to be restored. Look at how you talk about refugees or immigrants. What words are you using? Do you ever call them people, humans, human beings, image-bearers of God, or friends? Or, do you stay neatly in the realm of calling them immigrants, refugees, undocumented, illegals, foreigners, invaders, or threats? One of the tell-tale signs of a language and heart problem is the use of the word “these” —  these people; these immigrants; these foreigners. A worker in one of our camps was shocked when he saw the LifeLab we installed in action with our refugee friends. He exclaimed, “You spent all this money on these people!?” There is something despising in the use of the word these to classify people as lower and more akin to sub-human; something less-than-me.
  2. The defense of political policy first: a little flag goes up in my heart when I read Christians running to defend a civil policy first and foremost with no mention of the Gospel-need anywhere to be found. There’s a Gospel apathy which becomes evident when we label all people “lawbreakers” and we are referring to the State. Again, let me say, I am not advocating for transgressing the law, rather, is the civil law of my resident country the only filter I’m using to describe “these people”? That is not the filter the Father used when he sent us Christ Jesus — and thank Heaven, he did not, or all of us lawbreakers would be without hope. The motive of the Gospel was to love sinners first. The point of confusion often comes when we classify any and all immigrants as illegal lawbreakers. On the other hand, the Gospel tempers this tendency and compels us to seek out their humanity and to meet the needs of the stranger. Our natural disposition, however, makes it so hard for us to approach and understand those who are different than we are.
  3. The Lord’s church doesn’t factor as a solution: Following on from the last point, one of the things I have noticed in comments on Christian forums is the tendency not to see the local church as God’s welcoming and sheltering family, but rather, the church is more of a complication (a nuisance in the argument even) or maybe even a contributor to the social problem of immigration. In Italia, we have a dual crisis on-hand. First, we have the humanitarian crisis of the massive wave of immigrant people who are now trying to integrate into European societies. The second crisis, however, is more severe and has to be seen with eyes of faith. We do not have the churches which can serve all of the new people arriving in Italia. Indeed, this is a main reason why we are engaged in church-planting. We believe the Lord’s church is by far the best answer to the humanitarian crisis — simply for the fact that the foundational need of both indigenous people and immigrant people is to know the Lord Jesus. The church does not look at people groups as cattle to be herded or numbers to be pressed through a system. Rather, the church works to get down into each individual life and soul to lift-up Christ as the substance of the image we all bear. Christians and Christian churches miss the point (the Gospel opportunity) when we relegate all the answers and solutions to the State or societal institutions.
  4. The Great Commission isn’t so great: King Jesus ended his ministry with one last charge — Go into all the world and proclaim this Good News of me…!
    In a certain sense, it may be the church is not “going” enough, so the nations are “coming” in a glorious turn-about in modern history. For those intimidated or threatened by others who are not like them, this trend is not a welcome sight. But for those instructed by the King of all, this affords the church a beautiful opportunity.

    In the late 4th century A.D., Augustine wrote a series of works called The City of God where he dealt with the real invasion of the Visigoths of the north and the sack of Rome. Remember, at the time of his writing, the modern world was in a state of shock that the impossible-to-happen, just happened (a surprise theme repeated often in history). In this large work, he has many things to say about the impact of the unseen city of God upon the seen city of man. While Augustine’s main motive was to refute the blame placed upon the Christians for the sack of Rome, he simultaneously challenged Christians to live more for the City of God and to live in the perspective of eternal Heaven than that of what was happening around them.

    In the same way, with such a massive, modern issue (also and often called a “ruinous invasion”), we Christians need to strive to begin with the Great Commission and see to it that the Commission really is Great in our hearts, speech, and decisions. There is enough parroting of the voices of dead-men’s media. Our churches and homes don’t need any more of that. Rather, we need delightful, risk-taking, self-sacrificing, and eye-popping Gospel perspectives which honor our King and his Commission. Please don’t miss that point on immigration no matter where you live in the city of man.

If you would like to read part 2 of this series on refugees, please click here.

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.

Refugees: Personhood and Politics

Whatever your views on the subject of immigration, do you at least see migrants as human beings? Whenever you hear the word “refugee” what do you think of first? Do you permit the fact that each human being has been formed in the glory of the Imago Dei? Or do you sense judgment like Jonah toward the Ninevites or worse, disgust like Pharaoh toward the Israelites? As I contribute my thoughts and experiences on this vast subject, the undercurrent which daily sweeps over my soul is that the Gospel for the Christ-follower must be the basis, the conditioning “first-thought” which governs all other questions and solutions pertaining to other human beings.

refugee boat

It must be stressed that I am not advocating to throw open borders, ignore national sovereignties, and invite freeloaders and terrorists to enjoy consuming and destroying our cities. I do believe that a Christian’s witness is enhanced or it is hindered by how they treat civil law. On the other hand, I am not advocating that the many foreigners arriving in our land are only a political problem and are not worthy of welcome, care, and the Christian Gospel.

Rather, as I’ve outlined this series of articles, I think the call and the urgency of the Gospel compels believers to go deeper than the news and popular, cultural opinion which tends to rest solely in the political arena. At the outset, what we face is a regular, daily tension of whether we will put our politics aside for their personhood or their personhood aside for our political narratives.

It is much easier to remain in the socio-political arena; there, everyone believes they are entitled to an opinion without many consequences, if any at all. However, we have found when someone begins to work directly with people whose lives have been ravaged and traumatized by war, famine, poverty, slavery, and maltreatment their socio-political opinions are greatly challenged. So, what happens to people between the Facebook wall and the walls of the camps where large groups of human beings are sequestered? My answer is the impact of “personhood” is happening. People are sensing both the dignity of personhood in the Imago Dei and the significance of the pain of human need. It’s the simple practice of personal contact which changes everything.

The Great Samaritan

We can see this plainly applied in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Hebrew traveller is mugged and left to die, the two surprising aspects of those who pass by are who they are and the distance they keep. The fellow Jews (who would have had a moral and societal obligation to care) kept their distance and masked both their fears and their disdain for the man-in-need behind their societal robes and roles. In shocking contrast, the Samaritan comes close and personalizes the situation at his own expense. As Jesus recounts the parable, it seems as if proximity to the brokenness caused an immediate melting of any prejudice that the Samaritan could “rightly” claim.

good-samaritan-sculpture

Jesus told this parable to answer the question, “So who really is my neighbor?” At face value, we can discern that our neighbors are human, in need, people along our path, often different than we are, and can also be our socio-political opposites. The question came from an attorney, an interpreter of the law, and it was designed to force Jesus to reduce Heaven’s compassion to man’s comforts. Little did the attorney realize he was trapping himself by putting his politics before personhood — and it takes the invasion of Jesus himself to liberate the lawyer. Indeed, it takes Jesus himself to liberate our sacrifice from our opinions. I cannot overstate how challenging and uncomfortable this practice is for us. Nothing short of the resurrection power of Christ can bring us even close to what Jesus called us to in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This is a good starting point to advocate for the challenge of our own hearts in how we view humanity — humans who are different than us, messier, and often more broken. It ought to grieve Christians first when another human is in difficulty or suffering before we quickly judge whether they deserve it or not. Ninevites can repent, and God looks forward to their repentance. Did we listen to Prophet Jonah in our Bible classes or did we only color the picture of the fish with a belly full of bitter prophet?  Imagine what the Gospel could do in the hands of energetic, young men who have risked their lives and faced death for much lower causes. Can you visualize how many missionaries and church planters could return to the shores of their homelands from today’s incoming waves? Just imagine how the Gospel could shine and show the upside-down and right-side up story of Jesus Christ among the nations. For this I advocate — the Gospel to humans first and foremost.