It’s the screams of refugees heard at 3 a.m. that I will always remember about my visit to the Greek island of Kos. This tiny island—four miles off the coast of Turkey—is one of the primary entry points into the European Union for refugees from the Middle East. They are fleeing from Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria, and their screams arise out of lives thrown into chaos.
Once filled with tourists, the Kos beach is now littered with abandoned boats, electric engines, and life jackets. Refugees pay between $1,000 and $2,000 to ride with 20 people in a boat meant for 10. They’re given electric motors (think trolling motors if you fish) and are told they will make it. About halfway through the four-mile, middle-of-the-night journey the engines often give out, leaving fathers, mothers, and children to paddle for their lives. My friend met one man who’d trained for weeks and made the journey, swimming alone. Another Syrian was told Europeans would rape his wife and daughters, yet he still decided that risk was better than staying in his homeland.
When the refugees arrive on the beach they are greeted by the United Nations and, at the time of this writing, some Christian organizations as well. They are handed an assortment of things—typically warm clothes, blankets, and a sanitation kit. From there, the hard decisions begin: Who’s processed first? People are ranked and shuttled onto a large ship that heads to the port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece. The government, for all its problems, is trying to help, having established camps in Athens, the border of northern Greece, and on multiple islands. Last month there were more than 1,000 Afghan men sheltered in a local stadium.
Upon arrival at the port the refugees are greeted by fences and police. Greek evangelical Christians are also there, handing out food, rain gear, baby carriers, and sanitation kits. Greece cannot afford to keep them, so the refugees are herded onto charter buses, taken to the border of Macedonia, and told to start walking. For most, the goal is Germany. An estimated 500,000 persons have entered Athens in the last 10 months. Under severe economic pressure, Greece is being asked to process an unprecedented number of migrants into the European Union.
No Easy Answer
American Christians have responded in a variety of ways. Before the Paris attacks, they seemed nominally interested since the effect on their daily lives was negligible (and probably still is). Fear has been the most common response on my Facebook feed, with statements ranging from “We should offer no help” to “Muslims will take over Europe.”
Others have viewed this as a unique gospel opportunity. They aren’t thinking of macro-level issues, but interpersonal relationships. And while we might cheer or decry the United States for saying it’ll take some of the refugees, that prospect remains years away; the candidates must make appointments at American embassies and prove their refugee status.
The macro-level issues aren’t easy, and that’s why evangelicals are divided over the answers. Compassion doesn’t automatically equal an open border. Welcoming refugees is great, but what about a week after they arrive? What about translators in Afghanistan who risked their lives to work for the U.S. military and are backlogged in the immigration process? Who’s going to pay for it all? These are difficult questions.
Human interest stories make rigid immigration policy look petty and mean-spirited. At the same time, there’s a real threat to a country overrun with new people who are often unequipped to live in that culture. There are 500,000 starving people on the move, predominately Muslim, from countries Christians would label “creative access countries.” The problem isn’t going away.
Glimmer of Hope
Evangelicals in Athens have also responded in numerous ways. Last month, while I was visiting a friend in Athens, he and a local Chinese church leader were coordinating the purchase of baby carriers for Afghan and Syrian women. A Danish Christian I met moved to Athens and started a ministry to care for more than 1,000 unattended Afghan children whose parents either sent them or left them behind. Greek evangelicals are small in number and often marginalized, yet along with local missionaries they are doing all they can.
In the midst of the crisis, there are glimmers of gospel light breaking through. Last January the organization I serve, Training Leaders International, graduated a class of Christian leaders from Eritrea, Iran, Afghanistan, Ghana, Nigeria, and Romania—all of whom are now living in Athens. Much of the initial contact with the gospel comes through refugee centers, but local churches led by migrants have also sprung up.
Last month I attended an Iranian Bible study on Romans taught by a Greek pastor. Indeed, one local Iranian ministry has seen such success they were warned that their work was being infiltrated by spies. A year ago there were more migrant evangelicals than Greek evangelicals in Athens. Now the gospel is being pushed out around Europe because of the movement.
What Can We Do?
Policy debates aside, are there things we can do, even far from ground zero? Here are five basic things:
1. Pray for the people who live in these pass-through countries. Pray they will provide physical and spiritual relief for the people they meet. Pray that Christians will lead the way and that many Muslims will come to Christ.
2. Reach out. If you’re passionate about the potential for gospel ministry among refugees, consider this: Are you reaching out to refugees already in your city, or at least supporting those doing so? Do you know what the inside of your neighbor’s house looks like? Have you shared your life with them, with others? In short, are you taking advantage of the opportunities God has put in front of you now?
3. Seek insight. Many who passionately speak against refugees from the Middle East entering our country know little about Islam. Perhaps you should read a good book on Islam such as John Klaassen’s Engaging with Muslims: Understanding Their World, Sharing Good News (Good Book Company, 2015).
4. Listen to both sides. There are thoughtful Christians who want to tighten our borders and thoughtful Christians who want to accept refugees. Listen to understand, not simply to argue. There are deeply theological fault lines in play, from varying views on kingdom theology to the relationship between church and state.
5. Question proof-texting exegesis. I constantly see this done from the Old Testament law and prophets. Quoting a few verses on welcoming strangers just isn’t going to cut it.
Is there more we can do? Of course. But these are some good places to start.