I have been haunted by the image of a tiny Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose family was fleeing unthinkable violence in their home country of Syria. The photos showing his body lying on a Turkish beach have become a symbol of the refugee crisis in Europe. They are images that once seen cannot be unseen. He’s wearing a red shirt and black shoes, his face partly covered by sand and gentle waves, as if he were sleeping. In this year alone, more than 2,600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. You only risk death on the water when staying where you are is even more deadly.
I first heard about the Mediterranean refugee crisis last spring, but it seemed very far away and I did not understand why so many people were desperate to leave Syria. After seeing the image of little Aylan, I began to read and learn about why the crisis requires a global response. More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last four years by power grabs among multiple competing factions in a brutal civil war. Nearly 100,000 more have died by famine due to a multi-year drought that has destroyed the countries once vibrant agriculture. Rural famers have been forced into crowded and dangerous cities that only a few years ago had been pleasant and flourishing. Once prosperous cities like Aylan’s former home of Aleppo are now bombed out rubble. Daily missile strikes continue to torment survivors. Half of the country’s population has been displaced with more than 4 million fleeing for their lives as refugees.
Aylan’s father, Abdullah, had purchased life jackets for their journey only to find they had been deceived. Fifty people were crammed on an inflatable boat rated for 12. When their boat capsized in the waves instead of keeping them afloat, the life vest became heavy, pulling them under the waves. For hours in the dark stormy sea, he held on to the overturned boat and his terrified children, pushing them in turns above the water so they could breath. Through the long night, he watched hopelessly as the light left their eyes; first brother Galip, then Aylan and then his wife Rehen. At least a dozen died from that boat, all desperately seeking safety.
How Christians should respond to things happening in the world has been much in the news this week with lots of prominent voices weighing in. What I keep noticing is how often those voices speak declaratively about things that cost them very little. Railing against “those people,” whoever “those people” might be this week, while claiming to be defending God is easy. But God does not need our protection because God is God. But God’s people do desperately need our care and protection.
Working with refugees and others who are suffering is hard because it always costs us something: time, money, comfort, assumptions and easy answers. And yet, compassion and care for those in need, especially foreigners, has been central to God’s word from generation to generation. I keep remembering other penniless refugees fleeing a dangerous homeland. Our faith became flesh in another family trying to find safety and welcome on foreign soil: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Good thing for all of us they were not turned back at the border and sent back to the tyrant slaughtering Bethlehem innocents.
The two most repeated phrases in the Bible are fear not, remember. How might our world be transformed when Christians reclaimed that core of our faith? The U.S. will become home to some portion of refugees. We can choose to receive them in Christian love and show by our actions the love and self-giving grace of Jesus Christ. Or we can choose the easy path of fear and rejection.
Recently in our worship, I shared some words from the blog Momastery.com. Glennon wrote, “The Gospel says: Do not be afraid. Re-member. Re-member is the opposite of dis-member. When we shut our doors to our own family, when we are afraid of each other, we are dismembered. The kingdom of God comes when we treat each other like kin. Like family. When we re-member. Fear not. Remember.”
The Rev. Celeste Lasich is pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Hays.