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    When Hospitality Isn’t Cozy

    With millions displaced, Christians need to offer radical hospitality, even at personal cost or risk. Here are a few who have risen to the challenge.

    By Rachel Pieh Jones

    June 20, 2022
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    The war in Ukraine has brought eastern Europeans into the refugee and internally displaced crisis, with millions of Ukrainians now displaced. They join a growing throng around the world fleeing war, persecution, and natural and manmade disasters. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of displaced people doubled between 2010 and 2020, reaching over eighty million globally. More than half of these are internally displaced, meaning they remain within their national borders but have had to flee their homes. In each of these places there are people seeking to love their neighbor and welcome and shelter the stranger no matter the risk.

    Democratic Republic of Congo

    Conflict in the eastern Great Lakes region of the Democratic Republic of Congo was recently dubbed a neglected crisis by the Integral Alliance, a conglomeration of Christian humanitarian organizations. This means the violence is “protracted, complex or overlooked by the media.” Dr. Lazare Sebitereko, rector of Eben-Ezer University, said the area around his city of Minembwe has been devastated. In South Kivu, the region in which Minembwe lies, over three hundred villages have been burned to the ground between 2017 and 2021. According to the UNHCR, fifty thousand people were displaced just between January and April of 2019, adding to those already displaced by the violence.

    Dr. Sebitereko founded the university in 2011 so that students in this rural region could access higher education. The area is so remote that supplies are brought in by chartered airplane or on the heads of people able to navigate the hilly terrain with no roads, which makes humanitarian assistance nearly impossible. This leaves the local population to care for internally displaced people with what little they themselves own.

    African refugees travelling over an arid landscape

    Photograph by Mamadou Traore

    “At one point,” Dr. Sebitereko said, “we had over six hundred people sheltered at the school campus. They slept in classrooms, the conference hall, the churches. We provided clean drinking water and medicine. We shared the roof, and we shared our food. If someone had one piece of maize and someone else had nothing, they cut it in half. And thousands more came. So, we opened our houses. Every house hosted two or three families.”

    He described the challenge of caring for people who were used to being totally independent. “They had their own schools, churches, health centers, cattle. They had no problem with living and then the violence came and they faced the trauma of seeing everything destroyed or stolen, gone in one day. They are malnourished and grieving and when we share our homes and food, we are also sharing joys and sorrows.”

    The International Organization for Migration (IOM) suggests three possible options for displaced people: voluntary return, local resettlement, or resettlement elsewhere. Traditionally, voluntary return has been seen as the preferred solution. However, return is complicated by ongoing violence, trauma, and the destruction of the home left behind. There is often not much to return to.

    In Minembwe some families move on, hoping to cross the border and enter a refugee camp. Some stay in town. Many attempt to return home. One group of villagers whose entire village was burned revived themselves in Minembwe and then went back, hoping to rebuild. They were attacked and forced to flee again. They returned. Forty-one times since 2017, they tried to rebuild their lives and were attacked.

    “One woman came with nothing,” Dr. Sebitereko said. “Nothing. Only the clothes on her back, and she was pregnant. She gave birth in one of our homes. She named her son Eben-Ezer, rock of help. She said, ‘I am saved because there are people here to take care of me.’ God is my own rock of help, every day, every hour. We are only alive because of God and prayer.”

    Dr. Sebitereko rebuffed the idea of turning anyone away, even when there were no more beds. “We never turn people away. You never tell someone who is stranded, coming for help, to go away. Never. God is still doing miracles, helping us through the desert, giving us enough water, food, clothes.”

    God is at work, even while fighting rages around Minembwe and there is no guarantee of security or a full belly. One day a young man approached Dr. Sebitereko. He had been waiting more than five hours for an opportunity to speak with the rector, and begged him to listen to his request. “I just arrived here,” he said. “My house was burned with everything I owned. Please, I no longer have a Bible. I need to read the word of God and I don’t know where to find a Bible.” Dr. Sebitereko nearly cried. Here was a man who had lost every worldly possession, and he was hungry and thirsty for a Bible.

    “We know God is with us,” he said. “Providing shelter, sustaining us, answering our prayers. Please pray for us.”

    Sanctuary as Radical Hospitality

    Dr. Sebitereko and his colleagues in Minembwe are providing sanctuary, radical hospitality. For many, hospitality has become tamed and outsourced, distancing guests and hosts, or focused exclusively on family and friends rather than including people in need. Henri Nouwen describes this domestication of hospitality as conjuring “images of tea parties, bland conversations, and a general atmosphere of coziness.”

    But hospitality as sanctuary confronts the cultural idols of comfortability, safety, autonomy, independence, and privacy. According to Dr. Christine Pohl, author of Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, it exposes the failure of these idols to satisfy.

    “Hospitality,” Dr. Pohl said, “is a response of grace to grace. God has opened up the life of the Trinity and welcomed us. We are asked to respond to that grace in the form of showing welcome to others.” Hospitality is fundamental to our identity as Christians. “There is an element of mystery in hospitality, that God is present in the practice for both hosts and guests. Even in the challenges, God’s presence is life-giving and life-affirming.”

    The gospel as God’s hospitable welcome motivates Christian hospitality, but scripture also commands it. In the Old Testament God commanded care for the alien, sojourner, neighbor, and stranger. Hospitality is even a requirement for church leadership (1 Tim. 3:2).

    Sanctuary moves from hospitality as welcome to hospitality as risk-taking protection. Sanctuary is not the hospitality of a comfortable dinner gathering around twinkling lights and sparkling water, it is hospitality as resistance: resistance to dehumanization, violence, division, economic oppression, religious boundaries, fear of contagion.

    Nigeria

    Boko Haram jihadis in northeastern Nigeria aim to establish an Islamic caliphate similar to ISIS. Dr. Josiah Gana, a Nigerian surgeon, has a vision for Christian support and discipleship in Muslim-majority areas where risk of kidnapping, attack, and martyrdom is extremely high. His base is currently removed from the most imminent danger, but he travels when possible, and sends funds and materials to churches and schools to support those who do live in the region.

    “Nigerian missionaries are kidnapped, students are held for ransom, many are killed,” Dr. Gana said. “People are so afraid of attacks they cannot sleep. These people are Christians, we can say the church is bleeding from her heart, and we provide refuge.”

    Churches sheltering refugees include Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (Church of the Brethren, an Anabaptist church) and the Evangelical Church Winning All (formerly Evangelical Church of West Africa).

    Refugees came with nothing, traumatized and afraid, and were given a place to stay until it was safe to return home. The churches provided mattresses, meals, and toiletries. In the Chibok area where sanctuary was needed on a more long-term basis, Christians donated parcels of land so refugees could farm, giving them something productive to do and a way to contribute to the community, to limit the sense of dependency.

    “My church bought female goats,” Dr. Gana said. “We gave them to women who could sell the milk or the babies, and provide for their families.”

    Refugees also received a comforting presence and community. Dr. Gana repeatedly spoke in the collective “we” and emphasized the connection Christians feel with those who pray, fund, donate, and are physically present.

    With millions displaced, Christians need to offer radical hospitality, even at personal cost or risk. Here are a few who have risen to the challenge.

    He added, “It isn’t only Christians who suffer. The Muslim community is in pain, and we must love our neighbors.” When three daughters were kidnapped from one Muslim family, his organization donated money to rescue the girls.

    Earlier in the conflict, “churches offered sanctuary to anyone fleeing,” he said. “Christians or Muslims, it didn’t matter. But now the difficulty is that when a church or a seminary shelters people, you find that the next day or the next week, that very church is attacked. This makes it hard to trust.”

    The violence feels unrelenting and the government has offered little protection or assistance. A report by the UN Human Rights Council describes security forces as “dysfunctional, overstretched and ill-equipped, and therefore unable to mount an adequate defense.”

    “Our only hope is God in heaven,” Dr. Gana said. “We keep hope because this is what we are called to as Christians. It is a privilege to suffer for our faith. We have come to terms with this way of life and we do not despair. God is answering prayers. Many people have come to faith, more than ever in the past. Whole households, young people in their twenties. These are exciting times, and this can only be the work of the Holy Spirit.”

    Lebanon

    For years, Christians in Lebanon have been responding to the dual crises of Lebanon’s own economic and social turmoil and the massive influx of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. As of 2021, counting only those officially registered with the UNHCR, nearly one out of every six people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.

    Sanctuary welcomes desperate people to come as they are. They often come carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs and their histories of trauma, grief, and fear. Sometimes they come angry and terrified, sometimes with gratitude and relief. Offering sanctuary does not necessarily mean moving people into one’s own home. Rather, it can be the gift of providing the essentials for survival and creating a safe space in which people find rest, comfort, healing, and the ability to reestablish themselves. This is what Christians in Aley, Lebanon have been doing since 2013.

    Aley sits on Mount Lebanon, twenty kilometers southeast of Beirut, and the arrival of Syrian refugee families was impossible to miss. They moved into any shelter they could find.

    “You cannot say they lived in houses, not even half houses,” Lydia Liechti said. “Two or three families crammed into empty garages or abandoned rooms.” Lydia works at the Access International School in Lebanon. Eventually more than 250 families settled in the area surrounding the school. Lydia and other staff – Lebanese, Swiss, Germans, and Americans – noticed the appalling conditions in which the refugees lived.

    The team spoke with their local church; as their first action step each woman went home and gathered whatever extra she had into bags to distribute. “We took clothes, shoes, socks, and blankets from our own closets,” Lydia said. “Our potatoes and onions. It was a very cold winter and we distributed gas heaters and fuel.”

    At first people came to the school to receive the donations but as the Lebanese Christians and Syrian Muslims grew to trust each other, Lydia and the others began bringing the donations directly to refugees’ homes. They offered scholarships for some of the children to attend Access International School and organized a pop-up clinic with visiting Lebanese doctors and medicine distribution.

    Lydia’s team has had to navigate significant complications. There were tensions between some of the Lebanese and the refugees because the Lebanese people were also suffering economic catastrophe and hunger. Some felt that the refugees took advantage or took jobs and school slots away from Lebanese people. The Syrian refugee crisis drew more international media attention, and many Lebanese people felt abandoned in what was also their hour of need, even while being pressed to show hospitality to the newly arrived refugees.

    This along with rumors that some Syrians were related to ISIS members, or had been ISIS themselves, caused a moral dilemma. Lydia’s team debated whether to help ISIS families, and how to continue to serve the needy Lebanese community.

    “Do we really want to help the family of a father who is an ISIS fighter?” Lydia said about this conundrum. “We prayed and decided yes.” She told the story of a woman who worked as a cleaner. Her husband was in ISIS, still in Syria, and she would often cry in Lydia’s arms about how much she missed her family. Lydia would hold her and talk to Jesus on her behalf.

    “We also started to raise money specifically for the Lebanese,” she said, “and money for spots in our school for them.”

    Caring for people who have been through war requires more than a mattress and a plate of food. It requires creativity and the imagination to consider how the person can heal emotionally and even flourish.

    To this end, the team in Lebanon decided to throw birthday parties for the children. They converted the basement of the school into a party room by throwing thick rugs on the floor and lining the area with benches for parents. Over 120 children came to each of the parties. There was a massive birthday cake, music, dancing, a performance by a professional clown, helium balloons, a gift bag for every child, and food donated by the local McDonald’s. “These kids came from villages,” Lydia said, “and didn’t know what McDonald’s was.” Parents told her that they were thankful for the survival assistance and deeply touched that someone had thought of their children’s morale.

    Why Take the Risk?

    Why take the risk of sheltering people fleeing danger or face the moral conundrums of whom to help? Why open one’s home and schedule, or spend money, time, and energy on strangers? As Dr. Sebitereko said, what else are Christians supposed to do but follow the example of Jesus? “He gave up his life, so we follow. Christ is not just the Christ of history but of today.”

    Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me” (Matt. 25:35–36, 40).

    How will Christians respond when Jesus, in the body of a refugee, appears on their threshold? Sanctuary is emergency hospitality when the world is on fire, and the threshold is a place of decision. Will the Congolese seminary provide care for the mother about to deliver a baby? Will Nigerian churches allow Muslim villagers to shelter in the church compound? Will a struggling Lebanese community care for Syrian refugees? Will churches in Europe welcome Ukrainians?

    A woman came to Dr. Sebitereko needing water and he reflected, “I might think I should leave. Flee for my own safety, to my own comfort zone. But then, who would give her water?”

    Contributed By RachelPiehJones Rachel Pieh Jones

    Rachel Pieh Jones is author of Stronger than Death and Pillars. She has written for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, Runners World, and Christianity Today.

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