Crossing borders, ‘transgressing’ boundaries

In this conversation piece, SWF Research Officer Ermal Kirby reflects on his experiences at a leadership seminar in Germany that focused on ministry to, with, and by migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

At the end of January 2018, I spent four days in Braunfels, Germany, at a gathering which opened my eyes to the scale and variety of ministry with and among migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Europe. Sixty-five people attended a leadership seminar arranged by the International Council of the United Methodist Church in Germany; we came from 15 different European countries, and represented an even greater spectrum of national diversity when our various countries of origin were taken into account.

Here’s just a sample:

  • A young woman whose family moved from the Philippines to the USA, and who after completing her schooling began preparing for a career in medicine, but then sensed a call to the ministry of the Church. She is approaching the end of a two-year internship in Bremen, where she has been working with refugees and migrants from different nations;
  • A husband and wife from Sweden opened their home there to provide a place of welcome and hospitality for asylum seekers from Afghanistan. They sit on the floor and share meals, and have seen a church of Afghan Christians coming into being within their home;
  • A Bishop from Northern Ghana who grew up in a Moslem family, began attending a Methodist School, became convinced of the truth of the Gospel, and eventually trained to become a Methodist Minister. He completed a PhD on Moslem-Christian relations and now devotes a significant part of his ministry to that field, alongside his demanding responsibilities within his District;
  • A man of Ukrainian background, who grew up in Florida, USA, trained as a minister and is now working in Moscow in an ecumenical chaplaincy with five other denominations, serving migrants and refugees from 30 different countries – he has, as one of his colleagues, a young man from Cameroon;
  • A woman from Iran who arrived in Finland as an asylum seeker with her four-year old son; she was befriended and supported by a group of Finnish Christians, who helped her to deal with all the practical tasks of settling in a new country, especially following traumatic events. After about two years, she became curious and asked about the motivation of her befrienders, and after hearing about the story of Jesus and having various dramatic spiritual experiences, she became a follower of Jesus Christ and began working voluntarily to support other refugees – especially ones of Afghan origin (though she admitted that she had a fierce argument with God over that particular assignment and submitted only when, in response to her admission that her previous encounters with people of Afghan origin in Iran had left her with a dread and dislike of them, God flooded her with an overwhelming love for the Afghan people!)

For the past two years, I have been working part-time at the Susanna Wesley Foundation, on a project on Cultural Diversity and Circuit Ministry in The Methodist Church. When I reached the end of the first stage of my research last summer, I found myself asking an adapted form of the question Mr Wesley addressed to his Preachers in the Large Minutes of 1791, “What might we reasonably believe to be God’s design in bringing together people of such diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds in the Methodist Church in Britain today?”

A Mission Partner who is serving in Milan heard about this work and saw connections with the issues that he was facing there, and it was through him that I heard, at a very late stage, about the Seminar that was due to take place in Braunfels. Attending the seminar helped me to see that people’s experience of cross-cultural ministry in Britain was part of a much bigger pattern of change and transition that was taking place all around Europe. I have come to recognise that the question applies much more broadly, and we need a theoretical as well as a Biblical and theological framework that will help us address the big question about what is going on with all of this moving and crossing of borders: What is God getting up to, and what are we supposed to be doing alongside God?

In terms of the biblical and theological framework, there are two passages from the Bible that help me towards an answer: Ephesians 2: 15 – 22; and Revelation 7: 9 – 12. In the first, we hear of God’s intention to create ‘a single new humanity’; and in the second, we are presented with a picture of ‘a vast crowd… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne’.

If these Scriptures represent the ‘telos’, the culmination, of God’s purposes, then could it be that what we are seeing currently could be viewed as a stage towards that goal? Are the different parts of God’s human family being introduced to one another, and being invited to show such acceptance of, and respect for, one another that, together, we become a revelation of the glorious diversity of the Creator God?

Or, to use the picture of Revelation, are we being called, alongside our sisters and brothers of different backgrounds, to rehearse and prepare for the ultimate performance that will stretch all of us to the very limits of our capacity, as all languages, cultures and customs are brought together in one glorious symphony? How ready are we to follow the most basic rules of orchestral performance, ‘Watch the Conductor; listen to each other’?

One of the words that John and Charles Wesley used repeatedly in their hymns and other writings is ‘antepast’: could it be that what we are seeing in Europe is the antepast – the taster, or foretaste – of the heavenly banquet, and are we willing to be guests at such a banquet, rather than the hosts that determine the menu and the seating plan?

Like the older brother in Jesus’ story in Luke 15, the Church in Britain today is being invited to join the party, and the Father waits to see how we will respond. I look forward, in the coming months, to seeing signs that we are indeed ready to accept God’s invitation.