No strangers in our midst
As part of Drumbeg Parish's CMSI link Nigel Quinn completed a one month STEP placement with our Global Partners in Egypt, just before lockdown in 2020. He is currently committed to raising awareness of the vital Prison Ministry of the Anglican Church in Egypt through cycling hundreds of miles! On Tuesday 27th April, he will cycle a further 100 miles. Find out more on Nigel's justgiving page.
In this blog Nigel reflects on how his experience of partnership with the global Church informs his faith.
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Last week I found myself disturbed by a report carried by BBC Northern Ireland of an attack on the home of Syrian family in Newry. According to the media account this took place on Sunday. The family had only moved to their new home on Friday. They are a young couple with three children under the age of 10.
One can only imagine the terror experienced by the victims of this unprovoked attack. Sadly, such events are all too common in Northern Ireland. There seems to be a section of the community who harbour deep seated suspicion, and fear, related to those coming to join us from religious, or ethnic backgrounds, which are perceived as different. The reasons for this may be complex and not fully understood, but are ultimately irrational. There is a strong argument that immigration grows an economy. People who come here from other places either find jobs or start small businesses which serve their own and the wider community. Witness the number of Turkish barbers in Lisburn. I, for one, will be availing of their services over the weekend for a much-needed post-lockdown haircut. There are also at least two new Middle Eastern grocery stores in Lisburn operated by recent arrivals from that part of the world.
In the summer of 2016 I was one of a small group who travelled to Lebanon with Tearfund. One in four people in that country are refugees. An estimated 1.5 million out of a population of 6.83 million are from Syria. They live in appalling conditions in overcrowded disused offices in Beirut, or in shanty style slums. Others have not moved far from the border with Syria and dwell in settlements around the Bekaa Valley between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. Although they are technically not allowed to work they do provide services for the farmers in the region to cover the cost of their pitiful accommodation; baking hot in summer and perishingly cold in winter. I had the opportunity to talk with some of these people and hear their stories. They were fleeing situations of inconceivable horror. I still think about the children and wonder how they can ever recover from some of the atrocities they witnessed. Interestingly there was a theme which ran through the stories I heard. Despite what they had suffered in their own county almost all these people expressed a strong desire to return home if that were ever possible.
This is a sentiment I have often heard people express; not least when I was in Egypt last year - on a short-term placement with CMSI - teaching English to refugees, and working on the Refuge Egypt programme operated by the Diocese of Egypt. I encountered folks from all over the region. There were Syrians, but also people from Ethiopia, Tigre, Darfur, Chad, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and many other places. They were not in Egypt as tourists. They did not come because they wanted to see The Pyramids, or to scuba dive in the Red Sea. They were there because they were fleeing persecution, violence, poverty and death. Often like those I had met in Lebanon they just expressed a wish that the nightmare would end, and they could return home.
The demographic in Northern Ireland has changed greatly in recent years. Once upon a time most people who lived here were born here, and if not here, elsewhere on the island of Ireland, or in Great Britain. All that has changed. In the early years of this century there were arrivals from Poland, the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries. These were in the main economic migrants seeking a better life and availing of EU rules which allowed them to settle here. Most found employment and are now contributing towards our economy.
Later people started arriving from some of the world's most dysfunctional regions and major conflict zones; places like Somalia, and of course Syria. There are, as most of those reading this will know, a number of Syrian families living in various parts of Northern Ireland. In common with those I have met in the Middle East they are not here to steal people's jobs or usurp the entitlement of local people to housing, education or other benefits. They find themselves here because they are fleeing the horrors of war, violence and poverty. They are here because they have no home, or job, to back to in the land of their birth. As any of us would do in a similar situation they are throwing themselves on the mercy of our society and desperately looking for a hope and a future, if not for themselves certainly for their children.
The Bible has much to say about how we should treat those who are strangers in our midst. The cardinal principle is that we do not treat them as strangers.
Leviticus states that which any right-thinking person might regard as obvious: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land do not mistreat them." One can only conclude that this was not obvious to the Children of Israel otherwise the injunction would never have had to be given. It would also appear that this is not obvious to all in our society otherwise we would not continue to have episodes such as that in Newry last weekend.
The stipulation set out in Leviticus however goes much further than a mere injunction not to mistreat but makes it mandatory that the foreigner "must be treated as your native-born". Adhering to this I would suggest raises the bar to a considerably greater height than the simple requirement to desist from mistreating or causing harm. We are to treat them as our own and "love them as yourself". Why? Because the Children of Israel had been in the same position themselves a short while before when they were "foreigners in Egypt". Once welcomed and shown kindness and hospitality circumstances had changed and they found themselves enslaved and persecuted. We may not have had that experience in Northern Ireland, but those of us who are of an age to remember the worst days of "the troubles" know how unpleasant and frightening that could be at times. Some of those who find themselves among us in these days have lived through worse.
Rather than being suspicious, or fearful, of those newly arrived into our community we should feel humbled that these people have reposed their trust in us to walk with them as they seek to escape the terrors of what has gone before and move on into a new and better future. We need to welcome them, and stand by them, and in so doing reflect the very nature of God himself, about whom we read in Psalm 146:
The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked (Psalm 146:9)