When I was a seminary student I spent a day at a soup kitchen. It was Thanksgiving, and if the clients listened to a gospel presentation they could access a Thanksgiving hamper – including a turkey. While I did gain some good experience in presenting the Gospel, I could sense that many of my listeners had been through this experience before and knew what they had to do to access services. I have come to realize that there are some real problems with this approach.
This strategy of a gospel presentation before services can be accessed should be avoided when churches sponsor refugees of other faith traditions, including Muslims. We had the opportunity to discuss this very problem at the North American Round Table of the Refugee Highway Partnership, recently held in Toronto. The participants in my workshop all agreed that any time you have a power imbalance, and are dealing with a vulnerable population, it is very important that access to services comes with no strings attached. We serve out of our compassion and Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor.
In talking with Christians who are sponsoring Muslim refugees, I sense that they grasp this problem and are being sensitive to not proselytizing or using coercion in their witness. But I also sense that many churches are holding back from a robust witness of their own faith beliefs in the interests of not imposing their beliefs on people in vulnerable situations.
I think you see the dilemma.
While I applaud such sensitivity, it is important that we do express what we believe in our hearts. As someone once said, “If Jesus Christ is the most important thing in my life – shouldn’t I want to share that with others?”
So here are a few ideas on how to be respectful witnesses to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Be a good listener. Many refugees have been through a lot of trauma. They need love, care, compassion, healing. They need our hospitality and unconditional acceptance. In the process of loving, sometimes questions are asked. This is the time to witness to your own personal experience of God.
Notice and pray. Take time to notice the other person. What do they believe? Muslims are very diverse and have many different beliefs. As well, people come with their own unique history that affects how and what they believe. Sometimes we impose our cultural beliefs on others. Notice and then pray about what you noticed, before you respond.
Focus on Jesus. Many people in this world have misconceptions about Christianity as a religion. This may have come about through interactions with Christians in their country of origin, from the media, or from their own religious culture and teachings. But Jesus cuts through many of these misconceptions in his life and teachings as portrayed in the four gospels. Plus, Jesus is already revered in Islam as a prophet. By focusing on Jesus you get to the heart of Christianity quickly.
Be open to the supernatural. Many refugees come from cultures where the supernatural is much more a part of life than in our rationalistic western culture. This is especially true for Folk Muslims. Dreams and visions are much more important to them and accepted. Plus, there is more to fear – the evil eye for example, or Jinn (Jinn are mischievous spirits in Islamic belief that can do good or bad – we get our English word Genie from this word.) The Good News is that Jesus overcomes all spiritual forces on the cross and now reigns as Lord (I John 3:8).
Shame and Honor needs our attention. We tend to emphasize sin-guilt-righteousness in our western tradition. Nothing wrong with that. The Gospel is that we are sinners in need of a Saviour. Jesus is our Saviour. But many refugees today come from shame/honor cultures, and their primary need is to have their shame removed and be restored to honor. Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus overcame the shame of the cross, and “made it little” in order to sit in glory at the right hand of God the Father. We who follow Jesus are all children of God, and heirs, restored to honor.
Above all, if a person indicates that they are not comfortable with a discussion topic, be sensitive to that. I have noticed that Muslims love to talk about spiritual things. They want to talk about their own faith. But there are topics that can cause tension. Allow the Holy Spirit to open doors and hearts in time and seek the Spirits leading in your discussions.
May God bless you as you support refugees.