“We need to get there first to show love or others will manipulate them into extremism.”
The speaker was a tall, short-cropped Swede pleading with Christian leaders, gathered from thirty European countries near Stuttgart in Germany last week, to engage with the migrant communities mushrooming in Europe’s urban centres.
Thirty years ago, Peter Magnusson, his wife Lena and their children moved into a multi-ethnic community in Jönköping, Sweden, to practice what he was now preaching: incarnational lifestyle.
Many of the eighty participants of the annual General Assembly of the European Evangelical Alliance themselves shared encouraging reports of a widespread grassroots response across Europe of love and compassion towards new waves of migrants. Yet Peter’s story confronted us with the reality that the current influx of refugees would mean long term commitment from Christians everywhere–and stepping beyond our comfort zones.
The assembly responded to this challenge with a call to action for Christians across Europe to embrace strangers, be it new arrivals or existing neighbours of different ethnicity, culture or faith.
“The major challenge for the church is not to be driven by fear but by truth,” said Peter as he described the programmes he and his Underground network of up to 60 volunteers have developed to address the core needs of young migrants and children of migrants from the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. These included a drop-in centre offering help for school homework and life-skills, an employability course and a leadership development programme for 16-25 year-olds.
Trust and respect
Peter and Lena realised the importance of giving migrant girls especially a chance for education, growth in self-confidence and status in their families necessary to engage with society. This required spending much time with fathers and families building trust and respect, helping them to see the benefit of helping daughters and sisters gain life-skills as an alternative to early marriage and motherhood while still in their teens. A driving school for the girls has proven to be a great success in giving the girls a skill their families value, and a sense of independence.
While the hours of sitting in a car with only a male driving instructor would normally run diametrically counter to tradition, the girls themselves and many migrant families in the community have developed great trust in Peter and his team. The volunteers not only help with homework support but also mediate with local schools on behalf of the students, reminding schools of their legal responsibilities and student rights, and of the schools’ duty to assist those students whose families cannot support their learning.
The reality in Sweden was not always the stable, socialised society of the popular media, Peter explained. Police were afraid to go into some urban and suburban areas as criminal gangs were in control. Underground‘s fight against marginalisation, discrimination and injustice has increased the ministry’s profile in the secular worlds of politics, media, business and government. Unashamedly church-based, the project flaunts no crosses or verses on the walls. Peter: “We are the verses for people to read, and they know we stand up for the weaker.”
Politics of dignity
Highlighting the theme of the assembly, From exclusion to inclusion, opening speaker David Wise, of Greenford Baptist Church in London, described the journey of his formerly all-white congregation towards embracing some 45 nationalities today. Churches should reflect now the multi-ethnic multitude depicted in Revelation 7:9 worshipping before the throne together, he said.
In his provocative daily Bible studies, Arab-Syrian theologian Dr Chawkat Moucarry 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. 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.’
On the final evening of the assembly, I briefly presented the story of Hope for Europe before announcing that the networking movement would continue as a ‘brand’ of the EEA, chaired by its secretary general, Thomas Bucher. For over two decades the movement had nurtured 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.
It was my privilege in my last act as HFE chairman to present the 24th HOPE Award to Peter Magnusson as founder of Underground, a choice marked by spontaneous applause in recognition of the hope and inclusion his ministry has brought to outsiders in Sweden.
Till next week,