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Nov 10, 2015 | The Rt. Rev. Pierre W. Whalon, D. D.

Go to a Land that I will Show you

As hundreds of migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean, European leaders wring their hands and plan to “do something.” This crisis however has not just happened. Seven years ago, refugees arriving by sea were overwhelming the Italian and Greek authorities, who asked for help. This writer was privileged to be invited to a meeting of all the European Union interior ministers in 2008, where a pact on immigration and asylum was hammered out. It became a dead letter, for it called for equal responsibility among the 28 member nations in accepting asylum seekers and migrants.


That agreement needs to be dusted off and applied. The navies and coast guard units of the Mediterranean EU members must be significantly reinforced. There must be a concerted effort to help a stable government develop in Syria.


More importantly, in the long run, the Church and other religious authorities need to counter the fearful response to migrants and refugees that has blossomed, as the flow of migrants has continued and even intensified. The lie born of fear is that this “flood of people” will somehow drown us, both economically and culturally, as if human beings are as devastating as flood waters. A newer version is that in this “flood” there will be terrorists. The fact is that nations that welcome the stranger do better on the whole than those who do not. The success of the United States of America, envied around the world, is based on the fact that it is essentially a nation built by migrants. And we should be more wary of “home-grown” terrorists, who on the whole have been more numerous and much more destructive than those smuggled in.


But accepting refugees and migrations is even more important than positive economic benefits. For people of faith, how we welcome the stranger is liable to the judgment of God.


This goes back to the biblical origins of the people of Israel, and by extension, of Christianity and Islam. Abraham and Sarah received an ambiguous call from God: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” In other words, leave everything familiar behind, including your family who made you who you are today and your wealth, set out on the road, and when you get there, I will tell you. The original people of faith were migrants. Throughout the Bible, the image of the migrant, the sojourner, is key to understanding the relation of God to human beings. We are all on a journey. We are all pilgrims and wayfarers, and when we arrive, we will recognize our destination.


Therefore, welcoming migrants is obeying the rule at the heart of the great religions of the world: treat others as you wish to be treated. We are all migrants and refugees. We must therefore accept other migrants as we would wish to be accepted.


“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”


“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”


These words of Jesus in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew boil down to one word: welcome. Every language has an equivalent expression. “Well” and “come” together, like its equivalent everywhere, forms a word that means, “I will make your stay be good.” Long ago, a specialist in protocol explained to me that formal protocols in diplomacy, for instance, are nothing more than seeking ways to put visitors at ease. Whether welcoming a monarch or a pauper, putting the stranger at ease is the heart of hospitality. It is, first of all, a matter of good manners.


Obviously, refugees are strangers whose needs are great, as they have usually been forced to leave their previous lives behind. Helping put refugees at ease means not only providing food, water and shelter, but also helping learn a language, go to school, and find work. And good manners require not only these, but also to do everything in such a way that the person does not feel ashamed to be so needy. This means stretching oneself to learn their customs, as well.


I remember once when we were welcoming refugees from Iraq to France at an official meeting, the then-foreign minister Bernard Kouchner was handing out croissants to the children. He placed the pastries right into their hands, for the founder of Doctors Without Borders knew that Iraqi children are taught not to help themselves. He cared enough to learn this, and while the children enjoyed their first French treat, the parents noted it with approval.


It is the small but wise gesture that truly says, “Welcome.”


The benefits of welcoming are great, including economic and social. The penalties for refusing to welcome the stranger are severe. In the teachings of Christ, it is a matter of life and death, not only the migrant but for us all.


Whalon is bishop-in-charge of the Episcopal Churches in Europe and president of an NGO that helps resettle people threatened with death for reasons of faith.