The Bible is an account of God’s project in history. Embedded in the text are human sagas filled with despair, courage, desperation, fear, failure and frailty. In and through it all, the divine intent is to uncover the true nature of God and to give us a glimpse of the purposes of God. The overarching message revealed in these accounts is this: At the heart of God is love, kindness and compassion. God’s design is for healing and fullness of life to be the experience of all humanity and the entire creation. Accordingly, woven through the text are invitations to align with God’s purposes of extending compassion, protection and care to those who are vulnerable and desperate. The widow and the alien, the oppressed and the stranger, the orphan and the refugee are mentioned again and again as those who, in their need, confront God-followers with the occasion to demonstrate the authenticity of their faith. And, just in case we misperceive God’s intent, Jesus reminds us, at the very beginning of his public ministry, that the central charter for his mission focuses on the plight of the suffering and struggling (the blind, the lame, the brokenhearted, the captives). Furthermore, Jesus makes it unmistakably clear that God is particularly concerned that the gospel is received as good news by the poor and the marginalized: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to announce good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to set at liberty the oppressed, to give recovery of sight to the blind, and to announce the year of Jubilee” (Luke 4:18-21).
Refugees are those who dare to migrate across borders. [They move from outside the margins into restricted space – space that is claimed as the preserve of those who are deemed to belong.] Refugees cross the boundaries that delineate who is an insider and who is “other.” Since tribalism is the default expression by which we define social identity, too often negative depictions are constructed, and fear is employed in order to distinguish who belongs from those who don’t. This, however, is an unredeemed impulse. The prophetic tradition in the Older Testament and the evangelical strains of the New Testament bear resounding witness to the divine intent for compassion and care to characterize our response to the alien and stranger.
When I said “yes” to God’s call to ministry, I became a migrant. I was an outsider, whether in a separate language group and economic status (my ministry among poor, Afrikaans-speaking farm-laborers), or another country (Jamaica, where we were missionaries), or within a different culture (North American Mennonites). Each time I moved from what had become to a new setting, I faced the reality of being an outsider. On each occasion I longed for welcome and embrace, understanding that rejection and even exclusion was a distinct possibility. It is not surprising, thus, that I was drawn to the story of Ruth, her mother-in-law, Naomi, and her husband, Boaz. Ruth, a Moabite woman facing dire straits and great desperation as a widow, decides to accompany her destitute mother-in-law on her return to Israel. As Ruth crosses the border into a foreign land, she carries in her heart the question of every migrant: “What will my fate be? Will I face rejection by the ‘insiders?’”
The hope I find in this story is located in Naomi’s remembering what it felt like, many decades before, to be herself a stranger and alien. Inspired and instructed by that memory, Naomi embraces as her role the obligation to “look out” for the safety and well-being of this alien woman. Fulfilling her duty, Naomi, the Israelite, said to Ruth, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you so that all may be well with you” (Ruth 3:1). Naomi is determined that Ruth not only feel welcomed, but that her well-being is ensured. That commitment makes Naomi willing to take some risks related to a wealthy landowner of her tribe. Through Naomi’s diligence and care, Ruth receives not only hospitality, but also an inclusion that inserts this foreigner into the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). She is not only rendered an insider, but is given the highest honor of being incorporated into God’s divine plan in the lineage of Jesus.
A touching story, indeed. But it is more. Much more! I choose to believe that this story is also an instruction about how we are to relate to aliens and “outsiders.” Welcome, hospitality, compassion and care are hallmarks of the response of God’s people to those who have become refugees. This is the case whether persons have become refugees as a result of war, violence, suffering or struggle that propel them into the unfamiliar in search of a better land and life.
Many of us, like Naomi, were, in a not-too-distant history, ourselves migrants and aliens. We would do well to be instructed by our need for inclusion and hospitality [when that was our situation] so that we, too, can extend a welcome to those who are [strangers and] foreigners and neighbors today.
I am thrilled that Mennonite Mission Network is engaged in ministry with refugees in so many places in the world. Also, through our trauma healing work in West Africa, we assist those who are marginalized and vulnerable to experience the welcome and hospitality that God intends for all people. May we, in the spirit of Naomi, respond to the refugee, alien and stranger with the godly sentiment she demonstrated in her words: “… I need to seek some security for you so that all may be well with you.”