Living into a new reality
United Methodists in Europe practice Christian hospitality in the wake of the migration crisis
Welcome the Stranger is a video reflection highlighting the journeys of two Syrian refugees who have found hope in Messstetten, Germany, through the compassionate response of community and local churches.
By Linda Unger*
December 18, 2015—United Methodists in Austria and Germany have responded to the arrival of refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, North Africa, and elsewhere. They have provided an array of services, from shelter, food, and counsel, to German-language classes and bicycle repair, as local communities and migrants live into a new reality together.
Ecumenical and interreligious cooperation in many cases has been key to their efforts and to assuring newcomers that they are welcome.
In the small village of St. Georgen, population 13,600, in Germany’s Black Forest, an interreligious prayer service this fall celebrated the 130 refugees who had been settled there as they await the outcome of their asylum petitions. The refugees hail from Syria, Sri Lanka—including 70 Tamil persons—and elsewhere.
“We had an evening of religions, which we called ‘Building a Bridge,’” said the Rev. Tobias Beisswenger, the local United Methodist pastor. “An imam, a Hindu woman, a Lutheran pastor, and I all spoke from our particular religious backgrounds. The migrants prepared a meal that we all shared.”
Gabi Eimer is a member of Beisswenger’s parish. She and her husband are volunteer “godparents” for two Syrian families in St. Georgen. “I teach them German and go with them to buy furniture and to look for clothing. If they receive a letter, I explain it to them, and I explain the German context,” she said.
“The relationship is close and very good,” she continued. “I talk about my faith, and they talk about theirs. It’s very good to know other cultures, how they live and think. I feel rich if I am learning something, and I am happy to be with them.”
Keeping an open mind
|Frank Buchter teaches German to asylum-seekers from Africa at the shelter run by Christian Churches Together in Freudenstadt, Germany. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
Not far from St. Georgen in the town of Freudenstadt, the Rev. Werner Hoffmann, a retired pastor, runs a refugee house for the ecumenical organization, Christian Churches Together. The three-story building near the railroad tracks is currently home to 18 men from Gambia and 10 from Eritrea.
Hoffmann’s hobby is repairing bicycles, and he puts it to good use at the shelter. For three hours each Saturday, he works on the bicycles that have been donated to the house by local residents who no longer need them. Some of the asylum-seekers in the house give him a hand with the repairs.
“The people here are open-minded and welcoming” toward the newcomers, Hoffmann said, despite efforts by extreme rightwing elements, he said, “to create enmity with the local poor people, telling them that the refugees will use up all the available resources and leave nothing for them.”
Frank Buchter, a retired teacher, volunteers at the shelter, providing German-language lessons. “One of the challenges for Arabic-speaking refugees is the need to learn the Latin alphabet,” he said. “They are used to reading Arabic characters and reading right to left.”
A united voice of welcome
|Mahdi Karimi (center), 15, an Afghan asylum-seeker, helps prepare lunch in the Zentrum Spattstrasse, a shelter in Linz, Austria, owned by the United Methodist Church and part of Diakonie, an ecumenical network that is a member of the ACT Alliance. Beside him is Jawad Bakhshi, 17, also an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
The Rev. Lothar Pӧll, superintendent of the Austria Provisional Conference and president of the Ecumenical Council of Austria, said, “The churches in Austria speak with one voice to welcome refugees.” And they work hand-in-hand with people of other faiths, he said.
“About one-third to one-half of all the rooms we have for refugees in Austria are from faith communities: Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists,” he said. “There are three Buddhist sisters in Vienna, and they have made space in their building for 20 refugees.”
The English-Speaking United Methodist Church (ESUMC) congregation and the German-speaking Wien Fünfhaus congregation, who share a single church building in Vienna, made their Sunday school space available as an emergency shelter to about 300 asylum-seekers at the height of the migrant traffic last summer.
“We’re reminded that Jesus was a refugee,” said the Rev. Matthew Laferty, pastor of the ESUMC and a Global Ministries missionary. “One imagines what would happen if Jesus were born in Syria today. Would he be one of these children, infants, on one of these flimsy boats, or one of these children who drowned and washed up on a beach in Greece?”
Now, the two congregations are modifying the Sunday school space to house up to 10 people for as long as four months while they await a decision on their asylum petitions. They are making an apartment available for another family in a nearby building that is owned by the Austria Provisional Conference. They expect their new neighbors to move in by December 21.
About an hour from Vienna, on the Danube River, lies the city of Linz. It has been a sanctuary for asylum-seekers since World War II, when some 60,000 refugees lived in camps there.
Zentrum Spattstrasse, a United Methodist institution serving at-risk youth, was established there in the mid-1950s as a social center for Hungarian refugee boys. Today, it is also home to eight Afghan teenagers, 14 to 17 years old, who made the long trek to Austria unaccompanied by any adult.
Helena Pindle, a retired teacher, said she couldn’t sign up fast enough to offer her services teaching the teens German. She began meeting with them shortly after their arrival in Linz, and now they meet three times a week for two hours. She said the teens are very eager to learn the German language.
“After the second week, they asked me to tell them words about soccer. Three of them are with a club in Linz and want to know the words so they can play,” said Pindle, a United Methodist. Her goal is to help the boys reach a level that will allow them to attend school, get a certificate, and eventually, live and work on their own.
“We have lots of fun together,” she added. “I learn some things in their language. They teach me, too, and they’re very pleased when I say some words in Farsi. They always laugh.”
Jesus as learner
|Bishop Rosemarie Wenner addressed a group of church and humanitarian workers at a recent recent training in Freudenstadt, Germany, that was conducted by the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Photo: Klaus Ulrich Ruof
When asylum-seekers began coming in large numbers to Europe over the summer, Germans and Austrians were among those who organized to welcome them most energetically.
Half a year later, enthusiasm is waning in the general population. United Methodists in both countries continue to find themselves challenged both to be a beacon of hope and friendship to the refugees and other migrants and to live into a new reality with them.
Rev. Pӧll and Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of the Germany Episcopal Area noted the growing tension in their societies between fear of the newcomers and the conviction that all people have the right to seek asylum.
Christians, they said, are called to model openness both to the migrants and the concerns that swirl around them. But, most importantly, to the opportunity the asylum-seekers offer of learning to live together, with greater cultural and religious diversity.
For Christians, Wenner said, a main task “is creating space for discernment, for discussion, for raising questions and concerns and, on the other hand, for helping people see the needs of those who come—and who come not only because they think Germany would be the nicest place to live but because they really have to find a place where they can survive and live a life in human dignity.”
“We have to be open to all people, wherever they come from,” Pӧll said. “If we want to be Christians, we have to show we are open to all people who need us.”
In Germany, Wenner said, “We have to live into a new future, where Germany is much more colorful, much more diverse in many aspects, looking at the people from different origins and from all over the world, but also looking at people of different faith communities. And this is a learning experience.
“We as United Methodists, being part of a worldwide church,” she continued, “we think that we can contribute out of experiences that we are already making—living with people who come from different places—and together build up the Kingdom of God.”
Wenner noted that there is both biblical imperative and precedent for opening up to and welcoming the migrant.
“In the First Testament, we see how the story of God’s people is a story of migration, and because of that, there are many reminders that people of faith, people of the Judeo-Christian tradition have to treat the refugee and the stranger as if he or she were a family member or very close.”
She recalled very powerfully how Jesus learned to take down a barrier between him and the women of Syro-Phoenicia whom he met on his way, as recorded in Matthew 15 and Mark 7.
The stories have their differences, but both, she said, “show us how Jesus learned through that encounter to overcome a border that had been quite clear for him: that he has to serve Jewish people only. If Jesus can be a learner,” she asked, “why couldn’t we be a learning community?
*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.