Posted: 3/19/2019 at 4:15pm. Article by Will Cumbia.
“Spread the chairs out. We have enough space.”
They were simple directions spoken to me by Walter Klimt, a pastor in my church, projekt:gemeinde, in Vienna, Austria. Simple words that struck a chord in me. We were setting up the cavernous and beautiful 20th-century ballroom for church services. After years of prayer, giving, and hard work we finally had the permits to legally hold services for all three congregations of our growing church.
Spread the chairs out.
For the past eight months for our German-speaking congregation and for the past years for our Farsi-speaking congregation, we have been crammed into a tiny space that comfortably sat 40. While we were thankful for the space it was nowhere near enough for our 250-member Farsi-speaking congregation and out of the question for joint services of German, Farsi, and Spanish congregations coming together.
That’s why in 2013, a ragtag Baptist church of students, refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, and toddlers took on national grocery store chains to bid over a million Euros for a 1900-era, run-down hotel called the Donauhof. And won.
Fast-forward to January 13, 2019. The Donauhof is still an active construction zone. The men’s restrooms have only just been finished. Dust lingers everywhere. But it is home for our church.
We have enough space.
Walter’s simple words were so meaningful to a cramped church finally able to breathe on that day, but they represent so much more. Those words embody a posture of mission and living in this church’s life and that of the Austrian Baptist Union. It’s a church and a Union that repeatedly over decades has made room. For Romanians who came to Austria seeking relief from the chains of communism. For Mongolian immigrants looking for a place to belong. For students looking for community away from home. And most recently for hundreds of beautiful and weary refugees looking for peace, safety, and justice when their homes were no longer safe.
Time and time again the Austrian Baptists have said, “We have enough space. We will make room. There is a seat at the table for you. We will find a way. Come.”
Even going as far as buying an old, run-down hotel to make room.
It’s for this reason that Virginia Baptists are partnering with Austrian Baptists and other Baptist Unions in Europe as a part of a new missions initiative called focus:refugees. Focus:refugees aims to meaningfully connect Virginia Baptists to the refugee work of our partners within the European Baptist Federation (EBF). Over the next five years, the BGAV will support refugee work all over Europe and the Middle East starting with the Austrian Baptists, the Croatian Baptists and their work with refugees in Bosnia, and Lebanese Baptists. Additionally, the BGAV will partner with ReEstablish Richmond, a refugee resettlement agency working with refugees in Virginia.
Today there are more than 68.5 million displaced people in the world, including internally displaced people and refugees. As the so-called refugee crisis unfolded in Europe and the Middle East over the past years, Baptist Unions within the EBF rose to the occasion to respond. Through their years of experience and their continuing work, we have a great opportunity to learn, to listen deeply, and to engage.
Across Europe, Baptists are opening up their homes, churches, and resources for displaced peoples from all around the world. We are excited and proud to partner with our brothers and sisters in this important Kingdom-building work.
The Lebanese Baptists understand what it means to make space. In the small country of Lebanon, surrounded to the north and east by war-torn Syria, one in three people is a refugee. One in four is a Syrian refugee. The Baptists of Lebanon only number 1,600 members compared to 1.5 million Syrian refugees in 2016. How can such a small number of people stand to face such a giant issue?
Through the work of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), Lebanese Baptists are holistically addressing the reality of their community. Their work addresses both the physical and emotional needs of displaced people including food, hygiene kits, milk and diapers, health care, trauma support, and winterization items. Through radical hospitality, a tiny Union of Baptist churches is making a huge impact in their communities. There has even been one instance of a Lebanese Baptist church offering their church as a safe space for displaced refugees to hold Islamic services.
The Lebanese Baptists know that God likes to take the small, the weak, the outnumbered, and the few and give them victory over giants. That God takes a few coins or fish or bread and blesses it to be used for immeasurably more than we can even fathom. We need only provide space for God to work.
You may know Croatia for its rocky coastline on the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, but the Croatian Baptists have made a name for themselves around the refugee camps of the Balkans. Through their humanitarian aid branch, Croatian Baptist Aid (CBA), the Croatian Baptists have been involved in refugee work for decades, working in camps as far as Greece and now in neighboring Bosnia.
When asked why the Croatian Baptists work with refugees, Toma Magda, the director of Croatian Baptist Aid says, “Many Christians would calculate that we as Christians need to do such things in order to evangelize people. CBA thinks not. We do it because God says it, and it is the right thing to do.” He goes on to talk about the body of Christ having too many “mouths,” saying the Croatian Baptists “want to follow in [Christ’s] footsteps and imitate him. We want to become his heart and arms and legs.”
Croatian Baptists have welcomed past refugees displaced by the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s to refugees on the path today on their way to Northern Europe. The Croatian Baptists are using their location where God has placed them to respond with compassion and grace to the needs of refugees at some of their most vulnerable moments.
“I feel that Westerners—before they know us—they call refugees terrorists. But God loves us too. God loves refugees. God opened these doors so that we could find him. We are the children of God too.”
These are the words of Kasra, an Iranian refugee who fled Iran because the government suspected he was a Christian, even though he didn’t actually convert until later in his journey. He walked from Tehran to Vienna—roughly 2,468 miles. He swam from Turkey to Greece. He used fake documents to cross borders. He would have been considered an illegal immigrant in the US.
Now, he works tirelessly in Vienna, translating multiple days a week from English to Farsi for Bible studies, church services, and legal counseling sessions. At only 19 years old, he is one of the most active members of the Farsi-speaking congregation of projekt:gemeinde. When asked why he serves the church he said, “I can’t pay Jesus back for the life he gave me, but I will try and serve him and try and show how lovely he is to others. He saved me and changed everything in my life.”
While many have called the mass movement of refugees around the world a crisis, many in European Baptist churches see it as a blessing. They see it as a way to show God’s love and hospitality to the stranger when many, especially European governments, want to turn them away. And they see foreigners coming in as an opportunity to grow the Kingdom of God.
It has been humbling to serve with refugees over the past year and a half on behalf of Virginia Baptists. I’ve learned that doing refugee work isn’t special, or at least it shouldn’t be. Welcoming the stranger and the foreigner should be a natural expression of our faith, something that happens without question when following in the steps of Christ.
Because what happens when you let refugees into your life is immensely profound. When you show radical love and hospitality, your eyes are opened to see more fully the expansive and beautiful and radiantly colorful Kingdom of God. It opens up our eyes to care not only for the least of these, but for everyone. We start to understand that we are all equal in our need of grace and love and compassion. We see that Jesus spreads the chairs out and makes room for the most unlikely of people at his table.
There is enough space in the Kingdom of God.
I am excited for the next years of service, of growth, of building, and of learning we have ahead in the focus:refugees partnership. I am excited to see how God takes what little we have and blesses it for immeasurably more.
I am excited too, that this Kingdom building work is not only happening across an ocean in Europe but right at home in Virginia too. We are thrilled to partner with ReEstablish Richmond to serve resettled refugees who are our neighbors right in Virginia. After fleeing natural disaster, violence, or threat of violence, refugees go through an extremely thorough and lengthy vetting process–sometimes years–before arriving in the US. When they finally arrive, refugees continue to face obstacles like overcoming language barriers, cultural barriers, not understanding systems, lacking transportation, and being far away from their loved ones. ReEstablish Richmond addresses many of these physical issues that refugees face, helping displaced people feel welcome in their new home.
I look forward to seeing the ways that Virginia Baptists will love their neighbors both far and near. There are many ways that you and your church can get involved with focus:refugees; through prayer, through financial support, and by giving your time. You can see a full list of ways to get involved in Europe and in Virginia at bgav.org/refugees.