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A letter from Burkhard Paetzold serving in Germany

September 2015 - RecEIVING ReFUGEES

How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings! (Psalm 36:7)

Dear friends,

In the last few days I have received many emails and Facebook messages expressing your solidarity with refugees in Europe and your willingness to support their causes and to strengthen all the helping hands. I'm grateful for all these messages and I want to thank you for all your prayers, your openness and your support for my ministry.

Dora Kanizsai-Nagy, head of the Reformed Refugee Mission in Hungary (center) in an interview with the colleagues of RCH Refugee Ministry about the Christian attitude toward the refugee question. (source reformatus.hu/english/; photo with permission of RCH)

 

Hundreds of refugees were stranded at the Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary

 

Communities in Germany open public gym halls to give immediate shelter for hundreds of refugees arriving each week

The above Bible verse was quoted in a statement of the German Protestant Church (EKD) leaders that begins:

“We see with concern that millions of people are deprived of (the) good gifts of God. They are oppressed by hunger, persecution and violence. Many of them have fled their homes. They also stand outside the gates of Europe and Germany. It is imperative in human terms, and for us it is our Christian responsibility, to welcome them and allow them to enjoy what God intends for all human beings.”

The statement points out that to assure that smugglers not take advantage of these people, it is necessary to find “legal ways of access to Europe.” It continues:

“Our society faces a great challenge but also has great capacities. We are grateful for the general readiness to assist in so many ways! ... (This) vibrant culture of welcome and integration; ... should become a central issue and activity for our congregations and church organizations.”

After earlier news of demonstrations against refugees by right-wing groups and of asylum seekers’ homes burned by xenophobic extremists, new images now show Germans with friendly faces expressing a very practical sense of solidarity and support.  This new development made me and many of my friends happy and proud.

I read of a citizens group near where I live that found 50 nearby families willing to shelter refugees in their homes.

With thousands of refugees arriving each week, authorities also are being challenged to rise to the occasion.  But they would not be able to do so without the support of civil society and a great deal of support from churches.

As you might expect, in Germany authorities have many rules and regulations; communication with civil society on how to receive refugees isn't always easy. Zoning laws made it difficult for our church to receive a refugee family in our old church manse, but we are now almost done with the paperwork and hope a family can move in soon.

But sometimes it's a roller coaster. Just recently for the first time in my region we had an arson attack on two buses belonging to a “refugee welcome! initiative.”  “Refugees not welcome” slogans were found painted nearby. Such attacks remind me that there is a large minority that opposes refugees.  Some say they are misusing our asylum law. Others say they are afraid that they will destroy “our Christian culture and identity.”  Roman Catholic Cardinal Reinhard Marx responded to this charge by insisting that, on the contrary, we'd lose our identity as Christians if we failed to receive the refugees.

The EKD church statement continues:

“With concern we note the underlying causes of the refugee movements: climate change, wars, persecution, failing states, extreme poverty. Our society is often profoundly involved in these reasons for fleeing through global trade relations, weapon deliveries and particularly through a lifestyle that is using up the earth's resources. It is time to repent and turn away from these unjust practices.”

In this situation it was a particular blessing for Presbyterian World Mission to have our Regional Gathering with mission personnel from Europe and the Middle East in Hungary from August 29 to September 5.  Just as we gathered, Hungary became a hot spot as large groups of refugees dashed through the fence the Hungarian government was building on the Serbian border.

Several of us went to the Keleti train station in Budapest, where hundreds and later thousands of refugees camped in open space areas and hallways. Arabic- and Farsi-speaking mission co-workers asked the people about their origin and their reasons for fleeing homes. The stranded people told stories about their journeys and their desired destinations. I talked with a man from Somalia who had been traveling for four months with his family of four.  They hoped to find their way to Germany.

Although no government aid was visible, volunteers brought food, refreshments and sanitary goods.

Balazs Odor, head of the ecumenical office of RCH, talks with Hunter Farrell of Presbyterian World Mission in front of the John ("Janos") Kalvin statue in Budapest, Hungary

Hunter Farrell, Amgad Beblawi and I visited St. Columba's Church, a congregation of the Church of Scotland in Budapest, and talked with pastors Aaron Stevens and Njeri Wagana. This congregation has a long history of welcoming refugees. Their latest program is the “Salaam Overnight Shelter (SOS) for Refugee Families with Children” offering shelter to families en route as the weather turns colder. The project aims “to provide a warm and welcoming environment where refugee families can rest for a night” (http://www.reformatus.hu/mutat/11346/).

Another passage from the EKD statement is especially important for German Christians:

Through our own history, we in Germany are particularly aware of the gift of receiving assistance in distress and finding open doors.”

For Germans, this refugee situation 25 years after the fall of the iron curtain was a deja-vu. All of us older folks remember the people seeking refuge in West German embassies in Prague and Budapest. Budapest! Back then the Hungarian government opened the fence for refugees fleeing to the West.

This is a critical moment in the history of Europe and our witness as a church is needed. Will we have the long breath that is needed? Will hope and openness reign over fear?

I conclude with an excerpt of a prayer written by Laurie Kraus, Coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA):

... May we reach deeply, give generously, and welcome extravagantly.
May we lift our voices in a strong and unified advocacy so that governments will act now to save lives and to protect the peoples of Syria.
Jesus, who said,
let the children come to me, receive our sorrow and the gift of our broken spirits, for we have so much yet to do to welcome even a few of the least of these to save your broken children, to strengthen and support their communities to call the world to accountability, to generosity, and to peace.
Help us find courage, compassion and hope, for we need your grace. Amen.

Please continue to pray. Please continue to give generously. Please continue to write.

Grace and peace to you all,
Burkhard

The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 328
Read more about Burkhard Paetzold's ministry

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