19 June – Refugee Week (Psalm 43, Luke 9:51-62)

One very welcome characteristic of our 47th Parliament is the increase in diversity. There are more women. There are now ten Indigenous MPS. And the number of non-European and non- Indigenous members has risen from 9 to 13. Parliament is still some way from reflecting the Australian population, but it is a step in that direction. Two of last group of new parliamentarians are Labor’s Sally Sitou and independent lawmaker Dai Le.

Ms Sitou tweeted this image on election night: “I am the daughter of migrants who came to this country for a better life. They left their homeland of Laos because of the Vietnam War and we are lucky Australia gave us refuge.”

Dai Le who fled Vietnam with her mother and sisters, leaving their father behind, tweeted:

“I still can’t believe it….I still remember lying on that rickety boat in the middle of the ocean not knowing if our family will survive; camp’s life, rebuilding our lives in Australia, and now, elected by the people of Fowler. An honour.”

Having these women with their personal experiences in parliament has made me more hopeful about the future for refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. These women know what it is like to be a refugee. They know the grief of leaving places and people behind, the fear of staying and the incredible difficulties of many asylum seeker journeys. They know what it’s like to be refugees because they were refugees.

Dai Le writes, “As different immigration ministers and prime ministers announce new pieces of legislation designed to “stop the boats”, I tell myself: “Well, it’s not me anymore. It’s about another group of people. I try to tell myself that such harsh policies need to be in place so that we can protect our borders, that our government has the right to determine who comes to this country…. But if I continue with that thought I am denying my background, and the circumstances under which my new identity had to be forged. When my mother was forced to run, taking her three children with her as Saigon fell, she did not have a choice…. If the Australian government had implemented the current pushback policies in the 70s, what would have happened to Vietnamese refugees like my mother and my three younger sisters?”

Over and over in the Old Testament the same argument is given to the Israelites as to why they should be compassionate to foreigners. Exodus 23:9: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Throughout the Bible God shows particular care for those who are foreigners in strange lands, those who seek refuge and those with no permanent home.

And this was the experience of Jesus.

We often focus on the fact that Jesus was a refugee – fleeing persecution – as a child. As in this clever cartoon by Peter Nicholson demonstrates or this powerful image by Kelly Latimore, ‘La Sagrada Familia’, which depicts the Holy Family as Latin American migrants.

Cartoon copyright of Peter Nicholson, www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au

But today’s reading from Luke reminds us that throughout Jesus’ ministry he would arrive in new places with few contacts and few resources, relying on people’s kindness. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Jesus’ followers were also to be prepared for this kind of vulnerable existence; to be kind to those whose existence was vulnerable because they too had a vulnerable existence.

What about us as followers of Jesus? Do we understand vulnerability? Being alien? Experiencing the kindness of others? Extending that kindness to others?

When Aron and I were in Japan living on a one student scholarship, we experienced many unexpected kindnesses, and one night a Christian professor from Aron’s university invited us to dinner to spend time with a mutual friend, from Australia, who told us an extraordinary story about being a stranger.

He and his wife planned a trip to Paris. He was going there via a conference elsewhere in Europe and took their son with him, and she went directly to Paris with their daughter.

Now, this was before mobile phones – if some of you can remember that – and before people booked all their hotels in advance – so they arranged to meet at the Eiffel Tower the day his flight got in and the day after her flight got in.

In the Paris airport, however, her handbag was stolen with all her money and her and her daughter’s passports. The straps were slit with a knife and the bag was gone. They found out later how dangerous the situation had been because she was being deliberately tracked by a terrorist group. Courtesy of an operative in the French consulate in Melbourne, her face had been matched with a woman in group and they wanted her passport.

Fortunately, they didn’t know all that then. They went to airport security who gave them a fare to the Australian Embassy, but when they arrived, it was closed for the weekend. They then went from hotel to hotel telling the story but were told again and again that without ID or money they could not stay. Finally, they decided to just head towards the Eiffel Tower and try their luck, and there they found a hotel where the woman owner said to them, “My family fled Eastern Europe as a child. I know what it’s like to arrive with no papers and no money. You can stay here till you meet your husband.”

It was a wonderful act of kindness. But the story continues. Our friend’s flight was rescheduled, and he and his son arrived in Paris that same day. They decided to find a hotel close to the Eiffel Tower and they walked into the same hotel where he told the same hotelier the plan for meeting his wife and daughter the next day. “Your wife and daughter,” she said, “are upstairs in this hotel. Oh my word, are they going to be glad to see you!”

As Christians we are called to be like the hotelier. To know that the life of discipleship involves vulnerability and that we should be kind to those who are vulnerable. But as Christians we are also called to be like our friend’s wife and daughter. To know the incredible grace of our God who welcomed us, who takes us in, for as Paul says in Ephesians 2, we “were once far off…were once strangers and aliens,”…but God, in Jesus, has made us, “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” This inclusion in God’s household is not a purely spiritual reality, but one that shapes our lives and practice. When we speak, as our psalm this morning does, of finding refuge in God, it is not a purely spiritual concept. We are called to welcome – spiritually and physically – strangers and aliens because we know what it is to be strangers and aliens. To share the love of God because we know the love of God.

Today’s reading from Luke is not specifically about refugees, but it is about our willingness to share this love – to follow Jesus…

In the passage three people tell Jesus that they are ready and willing to follow him, but three times Jesus offers them a challenge emphasising how hard journeying with him will be. Implicitly he asks the question, “Are you ready to do what it takes?”

Our commitment to refugees as a church must be one that is prepared to do what it takes for as long as it takes. The refugee crisis facing our world is not a spike, but a trend. Many of the conflicts producing refugees have no clear hope of resolution and, as we’ve seen, climate change is projected to displace globally 1.2 billion people by 2050.

And – if you’ve had a chance to read the bulletin this week – seen the stories of where some of the people we have been hearing about and praying for and supporting financially are now – you know that this church’s commitment to refugees is one that is in it for the long haul.

I’m going to put those faces and stories on the screen and let you read them through silently and then we’re going to sing a blessing– blessing them – and blessing us – as we continue this journey of being kind to strangers because God is kind to us.

Mustafa Jawadi was going to speak to us this Sunday. Unfortunately, Mustafa’s flight to Finland was rescheduled to an earlier time so he was unable to come. Mustafa arrived in Canberra on 14 July 2004 with his parents Hadi and Zerghona and his brother Hedayat, now called Amir. Mustafa attended our youth group in his early years in Canberra. Many of you will remember Mustafa. He is married to Kobra whose family moved from Afghanistan to Finland when she was young. They have two young children.

We are very happy that Vivian Williams (left) who comes to our church can speak to us! Vivian came from Sierra Leone as a Commonwealth Games athlete. Vivian has been here 4 years and is still waiting to get permanent residency. Vivian has a lovely girlfriend Prisca and is now trying to get a partner visa.

Last week Khalil and Dunya arrived in Canada. They were in Indonesia for nearly eight years. They are Hazaras from Afghanistan. We were involved in getting them to Canada. Many in this church contributed to raising the money. Khalil wrote this after he arrived in Canada: ‘It is the first time in my life that I feel freedom and peace with every cell of my body.”

Nagaraj Kovintharaj  (left) is living in Vancouver and working as a cook in a restaurant

Naeem Bangash who was on Manus has now been in US nearly four years. He is truck driving. He has married, but is still trying to get his wife to the US and has no idea how long it will take.
Shamindan Kanapathi is living in Finland. He got better results than he expected in his Finnish exam. He is working as a cleaner and a lady that he says is like his grandma has given him a car.
Walid Zazai is still in PNG but at last he has had a medical for Canada, so let’s hope he gets there soon.