Introduction: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25,35)
You welcomed me
This phrase describes the normal case: anyone leaving their old life behind and starting something new depends on being welcomed. For people who have been driven away from their homes, or have been forced to flee, this biblical phrase means: I have managed to escape with my life, I have been saved, I have a chance in life again. Being welcomed is vital for them.
What is happening to millions of people worldwide today is familiar to the war and postwar generation in Germany. Thousands of people lost their homes after 1945 and had to seek and build a new home. That marked them and the following generations. Losing your home country or region is terrifying. But that is what happens to anyone who has to flee or is forcibly displaced. A person also loses their home if it is conquered, occupied or ruled by strangers. It took a great common effort to integrate those expelled from the eastern Germany territories and other refugees. Having a home means living with trusted people in a familiar place, without fear and with good relations. It means: being blessed.
In our Christian tradition we have a certain perspective. Jesus here sets lasting standards: loyal and hardworking people are to enjoy God’s blessing. Also foreign, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, even guilty people will find a place to live. Through blessing, the world becomes a place in which people together settle down, East of Eden. They have a foretaste of their heavenly home.
Paradise in the Bible is called the Garden of Eden.
“East of Eden” means that, while we do not live in Paradise, we still yearn for it in our hearts. Even in tough times, that gives us moments of happiness and a foretaste of heaven.
I was a stranger
Being a stranger is not always hardship. Strangeness is also fascinating. Visits to sister cities in Europe or partner churches worldwide always have something exotic and fascinating about them, and have the flair of the “wide wide world”. Unknown people are received as guests just as we are received by our hosts as visitors. People have a right to be strange.
They have a right to be themselves and no one can force them to “be like us or you will not be welcome”. Being a stranger and being accepted are not a contradiction but two sides of the same coin. (What would happen to a long-standing couple if the difference between each of them was no longer allowed …)
Something strange can also be desirable. The example of strange and exotic cuisine is obvious. Famous painters sought the magic of the Pacific in the early years of the 20th century. Our love of travel and the great interest in cruises and world trips stems from the charm of strange lands, of what is foreign and exotic. I can also get used to the strange, come to appreciate it, own it and even regret that through habituation and appropriation something strange loses its special character.
But it is also true that strange things can worry us, simply because they are different and unfamiliar. “Strange lands, strange customs” is an old German saying. That can be unsettling. Not only can something strange be unsettling because it is different. It can also conceal evil intentions, as can things in our familiar environment. You think you know a person and can trust him or her and then come betrayal, abuse, violence, crime. No one would have expected it. You grant the stranger hospitality, open the door give space for development and then the person shows their true face as an extremist and violent criminal. There are reasons when e.g. the Latin term hostis applies to both ‘the stranger’ and ‘the enemy’. We should approach each one with caution and vigilance.
You need a whole village to raise a child, says an African proverb. The community involves the individuals in life and work, gives them attention, and leads them into the community. But if they infringe norms, it acts promptly to raise the issue and impose relevant sanctions. That does not just apply to children. It does not call for much imagination to envisage what happens when that is lacking. But we must keep in mind: people who have come to us in Germany and have found refuge are subject to a special, intricate set of rules. They involve residence and labor regulations that only apply to them and not to the indigenous citizens. It is obvious that only refugees will commit certain offences through infringing these rules. Things are different, however, regarding theft, fraud, violence and abuse, and even organized crime. There are an equal number of German offenders in this field. In other words, crime does not need to be imported. True, due to the increase in population through the arrival of refugees and migrants there has been an increase in certain types of crime. Experts say that the crime rate among refugees and migrants is no greater than that of the rest of the population. Rather, for newcomers and locals alike: regardless of cultural origin, religious or philosophical affiliation or social status, there are factors that favor crime and others that serve to prevent it.
In 2016, 22.5 percent of the German population had a migration background, and in NRW it was 27.2 Prozent (Source: Statistisches Jahrbuch 2017). It says: “A person has a migration background if they or at least one parent were not born with German nationality. Persons with migration backgrounds comprise all foreigners, ethnic Germans who migrated to Germany after the Second World War or later, and those who have been naturalized. They also include persons born with German nationality but of whom at least one parent is a foreigner, ethnic German or naturalized.”
Why talk about migration again now?
The Evangelical Church of Westphalia, its members, congregations and organization have been strongly involved in receiving and integrating people who have come to us on grounds of persecution, but also for other reasons such as economic hardship, war and civil war. On the basis of the gospel, it has taken a position on fundamental questions and current challenges. Why is the Evangelical Church of Westphalia today addressing the public with this keynote paper on “church and migration”? The answer is that we consider it necessary to take a position, yet again and in a fundamental way. The situation has taken a turn for the worse in the last few months and the problems have become more urgent. At the same time, the discussion is becoming less and less conciliatory, and more and more uninhibited.
Over a million children women and men have fled their home country since 2015 from war, terror, political persecution and violence, and have come to us in Germany in the hope of a life without fear of death.
With overwhelming energy, countless citizens, Christian communities, Christian and secular welfare organizations, initiatives, associations, companies and unions – in cooperation with local community leaders – dedicated themselves to the integration of the refugees and created a welcoming culture to an unexpected degree.
A good 70 years after World War II, most Germans no longer have personal experience of displacement and expulsion. Until recently that was a more of a peripheral topic in the media. We sympathised with the many million people who had fled their home countries to escape war, terror and violence. But they were far away. And then suddenly quite near. Hundreds of thousands of children, women and men have arrived in Germany in the hope of a life without fear of death. Many of them have never known what we take for granted. They have every reason to claim the basic right of asylum. They are welcome.
Hannelore Kraft, Introduction by the former Premier of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia to Gerhard Schäfer et al (ed.), Geflüchtete in Deutschland, Göttingen 2017
Through the refugees I have made new friends. I have learned a lot and they show me great gratitude and hospitality.Man, 52
However, immigration to this extent and at this rate is also a great challenge for the cohesion of our society. It has led to uncertainty and tensions.
On the one hand, it is a long-term, ambitious and difficult task to integrate refugees into our society on a permanent basis. Adults, children and youth have to find appropriate accommodation, learn German, and find access to education and work.
On the other hand, many people in our society are deeply unsettled anyway. Their familiar world is changing rapidly and profoundly, and they are less sure of their own place amid these confusing upheavals. Economic and cultural globalization challenges familiar values. Digitization, mobility, new forms of work and progressive individualization open up undreamed new possibilities. At the same time, for many people, they radically call into question familiar patterns of life, security factors and frames of reference. It is hard to grasp the ever faster upheavals in the global economy. Key factors in people’s lives seem to be increasingly slipping out of their control as citizens. All the greater is the fear that these developments are a threat to their own future chances.
There are many people who perceive those who come to us as refugees or migrants as personifying or causing these cares and fears. Integration is a complicated, long-term process, linked with difficulties and problems. Many are increasingly feeling they cannot cope with this. Life in diversity sounds very nice but can also be perceived as a threat to their own familiar way of life. Some people feel that migrants with the ability and the will to rise in society are competing with them for jobs.
At the same time we are seeing that currently populists and rightwing extremists are exploiting these uncertainties, worries and tensions. They are transforming the worries of the population into anxiety and hate. They are directing this hate at people with a migration background and refugees, and also at people who advocate for the rights of migrants and refugees. It is important to speak out and resist hate speech and attempts at intimidation.
I have looked after many refugees since 2015. It all started so well. I ‘sacrificed’ a lot of time and energy. In some cases, their progress is so slow and laborious, and our enthusiasm has waned. I feel exploited by some and others are simply not getting anywhere.Woman, 53
How can the church contribute to orientation and an objective discussion in such a situation? How can the stories and images of hope in the Bible sustain people in their uncertainty and worry? How can this biblically grounded hope become a source of strength for our lives and action, for our solidarity with the people who need our commitment? How can it encourage us to shape a common future, in spite of the lack of transparency, the uncertainty and the unknown outcomes of current developments?
I don’t know the Bible. Is it true that everyone in it is a migrant? […] This whole migrant and refugee issue today is glorified if is directly linked with the time of Jesus.
This keynote paper of the Evangelical Church of Westphalia is not a message from heaven. It speaks from the perspective of close relations with our partners in political and social life. We want to contribute our experiences and insights to the public discussion. And we want to learn from the public debate. We are aware that as Christians we need to constantly adjust and correct our basic stance, but also to seek reassurance and lucidity. That is how we understand the church’s mandate and its specific tasks in view of the upcoming challenges. For that reason we are looking forward to the opportunities of direct response and communication offered by the interactive internet version of this keynote paper. You will find the whole paper at kirche-und-migration.ekvw.de along with additional materials, such as pictures, stories, films, interviews, devotions, detailed statistics and other texts.
Let yourself be inspired by it and inspire us with your responses
I don’t know the Bible. Is it true that everyone in it is a migrant?
The idea that migrants here have a right to religious freedom is new to me. Also that a small number wants to be integrated. But I still think that most of them exploit hospitality in this country.
It bothers me that the church regards all migrants coming to Germany as poor and needing help. This is true of only a small number, in my opinion. All the others are economic refugees and criminals prosecuted in their own countries. The church should see things that way too.
All those people who don’t look for heaven on earth and who stay in their countries are the ones who need the most help. They should be supported and that needs to be stated clearly. The church should do more, not with money but with facilities where migrants can get assistance.
I haven’t noticed that the church openly advocates for integration. If that’s true, then it’s a good thing. And what does the church do internationally? Does the Bible actually apply to other religions? Are other religions also interested in talks and joint action?
This whole migrant and refugee issue today is glorified if it is directly linked with the time of Jesus. That the migrants want to live their religion here is understandable and all right. But in a foreign country they need to be content with less and to adapt their customs.
I think the church should state plainly: if you come you have to conform. Everyone can apply for asylum but should adapt to the community. (Kopftuch)
Ulrich Müller, retired fire fighter, Schwerte
… Compare e.g. “Shaping Globalisation – State and Church: Challenged to seek Justice and Peace in One World” (German only). Keynote paper (2007-2009). Also decisions of the Westphalian synod on migration, fleeing and asylum, and the realities for refugees, displaced persons and migrants.
“Look at them, another bunch of misfits!”
“A warm welcome to Germany. We are pleased to see you.”
“Peace be with you! Welcome. There is nothing to be afraid of here.”