By Dr. Ken Woo
MK: This post is from Dr. Ken Woo. Ken is a Calvin scholar who teaches history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Ken is an ordained minister, affiliated with the RCA. He and his family attend City Reformed. I had the privilege of talking with Ken about the influence of Calvin’s refugee experience on his own writing. Ken was gracious to write this post as a contribution to the blog. During this final week we are considering how we may be called to respond to things discussed in this blog. In this post, Ken draws from the experience of John Calvin to show that his refugee experience produced deep theological reflections. This is something that we should all seek to emulate.
“Earnest believers don’t always get what they want, but rather experience all kinds of pain because they left their country. Let such people be consoled with a single thought: 'Nevertheless, we are still in the house of God.'"
Readers of this blog might be surprised to learn that these words of comfort for immigrants and refugees, so timely in our present context, were spoken nearly five hundred years ago by none other than John Calvin (1509-1564). In this 1549 sermon on Psalm 27, the Genevan reformer held forth the importance of gathering to receive spiritual provision available only through the church’s ministry of preaching and sacraments, even if this means leaving places where such worship according to God’s design is not possible. Evangelicals across Europe made this choice, fleeing harassment and even the threat of death for their faith commitments. Many sought refuge in Calvin’s Geneva. Some came with their families. Others left family behind, along with property, livelihood, and social standing. A good number came from Calvin’s native France. These included the wealthy, who quickly transformed Geneva’s social elite. A significant group also came in poverty, representing a different kind of burden for their new city. Calvin’s congregation was mixed, comprised of native Genevans and an expanding throng of outsiders whose presence was not always welcome. He addressed Christians experiencing a sense of loss and displacement as the result of persecution, as well as those whose lives had been disrupted by the mass influx of foreigners. Nobody felt at home. As their pastor, Calvin offered this shared consolation: Our true belonging is with Christ, who nurtures us during our lifelong pilgrimage through a world in which we reside as perpetual strangers and aliens. Gathering as a community of sojourners, the church in worship enters the “house of God” in exile, a foretaste of home for weary pilgrims.
Calvin’s message was personal. He lived most of his adult life as a religious refugee, having left France for good in 1536 after embracing the Protestant faith considered heresy in his Catholic homeland. The Frenchman’s tenure in Geneva was an uneasy relationship for both. City officials banished him for three years over differences regarding church discipline and sacraments. Calvin clashed frequently with powerful members of the city’s native families who did not appreciate his reforms. That many of Geneva’s pastors were exiles from France did not assuage tensions. Calvin and his colleagues epitomized how foreigners were threatening old ways of life. Though he would gain increasing acceptance and influence over nearly three decades, one wonders if Calvin ever truly felt at home in a city that did not award him citizenship until 1559, just five years before his death. The reformer pastored immigrants and refugees as a fellow exile.
The Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman has suggested that Calvin’s theology was influenced by his situation as a religious refugee writing for refugee communities across Europe shaped by persecution and flight. Read in light of this context, Calvin’s familiar reflections on topics such as divine providence and election, the church, and the Lord’s Supper exhibit dimensions easily overlooked. To pilgrims who often feel only the sting of displacement, the reformer supplies a robust account of the Christian’s lasting home. Word and sacrament are manna in the wilderness, extended to the spiritually hungry through the church’s ministry. In such means of grace, God “has ordained a way for us, though still far off, to come near to him” (Calvin, Institutes, I.4.1). Regardless of their present circumstances, the gospel invites believers into a deeper sense of belonging and hope in union with Christ: “Nevertheless, we are still in the house of God.”
2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, widely associated with the beginning of the Reformation. As the church considers the complexities of welcoming immigrants, refugees, and political exiles today, Calvin could become a valuable conversation partner from another era rife with religious violence and mass migration. Oberman observes, “The fast-food of the neo-Calvinist Geneva-burger could not have met the needs of Calvin’s contemporaries and fellow-trekkers nor could it have provided the power for Calvin’s movement to survive to our own day” (John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees, 2009). Have we risked a distorted view of Calvin’s theology detached from the realities that informed it? Reading Calvin with his original context in mind may open connections between his situation and ours that are both surprising and fruitful. Good places to begin include the following resources.
By Rev. Matt Koerber
We plan to conclude our blog by spending the final week thinking about application. We have addressed some challenging problems and we have heard some amazing stories. I hope that some readers are asking the question: “How do we respond?” Over this next week we will hear from people who have reflected on that question. At the end of the week I will try to present some ideas related to immigration policy.
For today’s post, I am going to go slightly off topic and advertise an event that is happening Monday, June 6th, from 7:00-9:00pm at the City Reformed Church office. While it does not relate directly to immigration, it connects strongly to our theme verse. When we think about “all of the nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord,” it is impossible for Americans to ignore our own racial history.
At this event – part of the “Agora Forum” series – we will watch and discuss one of the most intriguing documentaries that I have ever seen. “Accidental Courtesy” is a documentary from Independent Lens (PBS), which follows the story of a truly remarkable man. Subtitled “Daryl Davis, Race and America” it explores the life and mission of an African American musician who has a history of forming friendships with the most unlikely people. He forms friendships with members of the Ku Klux Klan. As a result of these relationships, dozens of people have left the Klan and other white supremacist groups.
Daryl Davis was driven by a simple question: “How can you hate me, if you don’t even know me?” He had traveled the world as an adolescent and had learned to relate to people of many different cultural backgrounds. Returning to the United States, he was surprised by the overt racism that endured. His adventures started accidentally, when he was playing country music at a bar in the South. He met someone from the audience who liked his music and as they talked over a beer the man sheepishly revealed that he was a member of the Klan. Undeterred, Eric pressed in. He asked questions and refused to back away. Then something extraordinary happened. The Klansman asked to see him the next time he was in town. Something had changed. He began to see Daryl as a friend.
When he left the Klan he gave his Klansman robes to Daryl.
The story was repeated in different ways in different places. Not everyone that Daryl talked with changed their mind. Not everyone thought of him as a friend. But his pursuit of friendship with members of the Klan is one of the strongest depictions of “loving your enemy” that I have ever seen. I found his courage to be inspirational and I was moved by the power of his compassion.
A trailer for the documentary can be viewed here: http://accidentalcourtesy.com/. The full documentary is available on Netflix. It can also be purchased through PBS (Independent Lens.)
On Monday night, we will watch (part of) the documentary. I am delighted to say that my friend, Eddie Jones will help to lead the discussion. Eddie is a pastor at Eternal City Church in Wilkinsburg – an intentionally multiracial congregation affiliated with the Acts 29 network. Eddie has been a wonderful conversation partner for me. He is man of great spiritual insights who is deeply committed to building bridges across social divides. I hope that you can join us, but if not… please check out the documentary.
Editor's note: the author's name has been removed from this post.
From a young age, I felt called to serve overseas in places where there is no Gospel witness. I grew up reading biographies of missionaries, and met many workers my church supported. As I grew in my faith, I learned that God made and loves all people. Scripture from beginning to end shows God’s heart for all nations, desiring that people from every people group would come to know Him and worship Him. God’s intent has always been for His people to be a city on a hill, a light shining in the darkness. He told Abraham that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. The Psalms and Prophets are full of passages showing God’s love for the nations. Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. Revelation shows beautiful imagery of the throne of God surrounded by people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. As I looked at the places that seemed to have the greatest need, I was drawn toward Muslim areas. Millions of Muslims live and die having never met a Christian or hearing the Good News. Through college, God grew in me an interest in the Middle East, and following a trip to Jordan, I felt this confirmed.
I work for a Christian organization (I can't reveal the name for security purposes) that seeks to help Muslims follow Jesus. Its vision is to see the Gospel take root, grow, and multiply in Muslim communities, by coming alongside Muslims to share the Gospel, serve them in practical ways, and disciple them to follow Jesus.
I am part of a team working to launch environmental businesses in places with little or no access to the Gospel and jobs, beginning in North Africa. With a holistic view of mission, we are seeking to live out the Biblical mandates given to us as followers of Jesus. Having a mandate to care for and be stewards of the earth, we believe that we all have a responsibility and a role to play. From the beginning of the Biblical narrative in Genesis all the way through to Jesus’ teachings, we see a clear theme of stewardship. The gifts God has given us are never for ourselves, but are always intended to flow outwards in blessing to others. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. Further, we see in Scripture that we are created to work. Our work has been subjected to the curse, and thus we experience frustration and futility, though work is good nonetheless. Being able to provide jobs for those without opportunities allows us to love and bless our Muslim neighbors and help restore dignity. Business also provides a natural way to enter countries and contexts in which Christians might not otherwise have access genuinely and without pretense. Once we have entered those contexts, we can start building relationships.
We’re currently in the research phase of our project, and are looking to take an initial trip to the place we will be serving in early 2018, then launch our project and actually move overseas later that year.
Concurrently, we continue our mission to our Muslim neighbors here in Pittsburgh, as we work with the Somali Bantu, coming alongside them as we seek to love them unconditionally and serve them practically. In the context of deep, authentic friendships that we have formed with them, we work closely with the leadership of their community to identify their real and felt needs, and assist them in meeting those needs. This plays out in a variety of ways, including assisting in the development of a non-profit community organization, connecting them with practical resources such as beds, furniture, and clothing, teaching conversational English in their homes, and helping them create a for-profit urban farming venture. They’ve come to trust us at a level that often can take years, and we’ve seen God open doors, provide, and answer our prayers.
Muslims in the US & beyond
In their journeys to Pittsburgh, my Somali Bantu friends have experienced deep hardship and pain beyond what I can imagine, and yet they maintain joy and show a resiliency that is an inspiration to me. In Pittsburgh, they still face bullying, misunderstanding, and persecution. Their kids have been bullied downtown on their way to school. I had a friend tell me about a man who verbally attacked her at a bus stop while she waited with her kids. After a member of their community was targeted and killed, one friend’s children begged her to take them back to Somalia, a country they have never known.
My Muslim friends will tell you that terrorists are not real Muslims, often pointing to a verse in the Quran saying that killing one person is like killing all of humanity. We should not forget that today, all across the world, we see people of all creeds (both religious and secular) commit terrible acts in the name of their “beliefs”. We should also not forget that the vast majority of the victims of terrorist bombings are Muslims.
While extremism exists in the Muslim community, the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people. They’re our neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and friends. They’re trying to practice their faith and build a life for themselves and their families. Their faith looks different than Christian faith, and the women may have their heads covered, but we are more similar than you might imagine.
For those in the US, they find themselves in a context where they often feel unwanted and unwelcome. For my Somali Bantu friends, the refugees trying to enter the US are people like them, and in many cases are their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Having had the opportunity to interact and befriend Muslims in different places throughout the years, I’ve found that Muslims tend to be some of the kindest and most hospitable people I’ve met, while being people like you and me with hopes and dreams for the future and their families. Just as most Christians have never met a Muslim, most Muslims have never met a Christian.
MK: Originally from Pittsburgh, Sarah teaches English in Iraq through an NGO. Her Christian faith compels her to cross boundaries and serve the people of Northern Iraq. When the presidential travel ban prompted international outcries and anger against Americans abroad, Sarah wrote a particularly insightful post. I have republished it here with her permission. These three short posts offer a window into her world.
Christians, why do we idolize the illusion of safety for our temporal time on earth over the potential guarantee of eternal security for another person? Have we drifted so far from the legacy of Jim Elliot?
January 30, 2017:
Today, driving home from school, The World's Greatest Taxi Driver* got quiet for a minute and said, “Sarah. Please be careful today and this week. Things are very strange right now with America. If anything happens, I will call you and come get you and Susanna and take you to my village.” What he didn’t say, but what I know to be true, is that he would also drive us 5 hours to the Turkish border at great personal risk to himself, to get us out of the country. And if it came down to it, I know that he would actually die for us. He is a Muslim from Iraq. The last few days have communicated to the community that I love and have made a home in that they, as individuals and collectively, are inherently suspect because of who they inherently are. When our fears over possible outcomes that are never going to be 100% preventable rule our hearts and minds, not only do we not win, but everyone loses. Americans, Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis, Yemenis, Iranians, Sudanese, Libyans, and the whole wide world. The whole world loses when we turn whole people groups into the boogeyman. Christians, do we really have such a poverty of trust in our Lord? Iraqis are not all angels. But nor are they all devils. They are varied and a very complicated collection of individuals of numerous tribes, ethnicities and religions bound together by geography (and a fierce love of chicken and rice). And each individual is just as fallen as I am, and just as loved by God. So, please, when you are obsessed with your own illusion of keeping your country safe from Muslims, know that there is a Muslim who has told these Christians that he would keep us safe. And he is not the only one.
(*Sarah introduced the “World’s Greatest Taxi Driver” in an earlier post.)
April 6, 2017:
For the last few years the mud swallows have returned to this nest outside our door each spring. Because it is messy and the birds are so loud, the nest was removed last week, just as the birds came back. But we were so sad about it. It seemed like one more small loss in a part of the world where there are so many large losses. A few days later, the swallows began to rebuild it in earnest. And an unknown neighbor left a note asking people to not destroy the nest. There are so many horrible and sad things that are happening in the world right now. And birds rebuilding nests do not give refugees homes or bring children dead in chemical attacks back from the grave. But there is a promise I am clinging to that there are no more tears at the end of all things. And that the Lord Christ is reigning over all. And sometimes I am reminded of that in birds and mud and notes from neighbors. Come, Lord Jesus.
By Rev. Matt Koerber
I met Ashur* when I visited Iraq five years ago. He is friendly and quick to make newcomers feel welcome. We were almost complete strangers when he invited me to his house for dinner with his family. I am thankful that we could stay in touch (mostly through mutual friends). Ashur is part of a minority ethnic group in Iraq that is historically Christian. He lives in the United States now and hopes to work for the US Army. I initially interviewed him about what it was like to be a refugee, but we talked so much about the complexities of being a Christian in a Muslim majority country that it made sense to publish the interview this week.
When I called Ashur to ask if I could interview him for the blog he responded with characteristic enthusiasm. He assured me, “I’m gonna answer with the only truth that I know. Be prepared!”
He is quick to smile and invite you into his confidence. The outwardly friendly persona can initially hide the fact that he has had a very difficult life.
“My family was born in Baghdad, but because of being Christian you cannot stay at the same place for all of your life. It depends on the political situation, and your religion can affect the place where you live. My father and mother grew up in Mosul, which is the ancient city of Nineveh. My father was an engineer and worked for a private company outside of Baghdad. After his work project ended, we moved back to Mosul where he lived with family. At that time the government started to harass people who were not part of Saddam’s Baath (political) party.”
Ashur loves the history of Iraq and used the occasion to launch into a discussion about the social fabric of the region. He continued, “The thing that you need to understand is that in Iraq there are inhabitants from different ethnic groups: Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and Izidis. In all of the cities of Iraq, you can find Christians. They were there before the Arabs.”
I knew from my brief visit to Iraq that in that part of the world there is no distinction between religion and ethnicity. To be Kurdish or Arabic is to be a Muslim. And to be Assyrian or Chaldean is to be a Christian. One Iraqi friend once told me that he spoke “the Christian language.” What he meant was that he spoke Assyrian. But that is how people talk about it. It is how they think about the entwined nature of religion and ethnicity.
Most of the Assyrians have connections to the Orthodox Church. It is the part of the world close to where the Biblical adventures of Jonah and Daniel occurred, and where some of the earliest Christian monasteries and chapels were built. Not far from where Ashur lived, was the hometown of the prophet Nahum. For years, the local Jewish community had maintained what they believed to be his tomb. However, the Jewish inhabitants of Iraq have mostly been driven from the area and now the ancient synagogue housing Nahum’s grave lies in ruins.
Ashur is proud of his people’s history and eager to share its importance. “The language of our people is called Assyrian, but it is – as far as I know – very similar to the Aramaic which Jesus would have spoken,” he told me. In a world dominated by Arabic, it is often hard to keep the language in use. He continued, “Growing up, the only place that I retained my language was in church. Some people go to church to be religious, but many go to retain their language.”
I asked him what it was like to grow up as a Christian in Iraq.
“I grew up in a Catholic school in Nineveh. It was a very good school, and at that time in the 80’s many rich and politically important families sent their kids to these schools. They believed it was the best education… But there were challenges for my family – my father couldn’t find a job. Being a Christian and not having family connections made it really hard. It is not like in America where you just apply for a job. You have to know someone. My uncle was part of an opposition party, which was under government investigation. That made it even harder for my father. They took him to the police station to be interrogated. They wanted him to be an informer, but he refused. The police told my father, ‘as long as Saddam lives you will go hungry.’ After that, the only jobs he could get were under the table.”
But political and religious ties are not the only relationships which mattered in Iraq. Their Muslims neighbors felt a responsibility to help out. In spite of ethnic and religious differences, members of the community reached out. This is the complex web of life in the Middle East.
“Our neighbors would help us to get a job (with under the table pay). The Arab neighbors had connections,” Ashur said. This is another difference between the Middle East and America; “In Iraq, neighbors see each other in their gardens and greet each other. We will invite each other to eat. Connections are more strong there.”
But as the political situation grew more tense, life got even more difficult for Ashur’s family.
“They took my father for 40 days in the late 1980’s. He was tortured and then released. After 1991 (and the First Gulf War), it started to get really dangerous for Christians of Syrian origin. (Other Christians from different tribes were not persecuted.) Then, my family moved to the Kurdish region, to the city of Zakho. After ‘91 they started to declare their own government in the Kurdish region. In those days there were only a couple of hundred families in Zakho. Now it is a bigger city.”
I asked him how things were different in Zakho. He told me, “In Zakho, it was a very different story. These people were Kurds. They still live with a tribal mentality. They are not radical Muslims.”
I know from experience that the Kurds have a strong sense of ethnic identity. They have been persecuted by many Arab groups over the years and are generally very tolerant. They had felt the heavy hand of Saddam. There are museums which enshrine the memory of Kurdish civilians killed in a gas attack by Saddam’s army. In my experience, the Kurds were delighted by the outcome of the Second Gulf War as it solidified their semi-autonomous position and further shielded them from the attacks of their neighbors. To this day, the question of Kurdish independence haunts all geopolitical debates in the region.
Ashur told me how things again changed after the Second Gulf War. He said that Kurdistan (the informal name for the Kurdish region of Iraq) was quick to embrace the Americans and they began to see job growth. After finishing college, Ashur began to work for the US Army as a translator. He spent 2 years in Mosul and after the occupation returned to Kurdistan where he began to teach at an English language school. But while things were looking up for Kurdistan, things were getting harder for Ashur in his personal life.
After his father died from cancer, Ashur felt the burden of caring for his family. He decided that his best opportunity for work was to try to emigrate to the United States. There is a special immigration visa for people who had worked in the army and who were experiencing persecution. Ashur applied for the visa and came to the U.S. in 2014, where he lived for a time with his former army captain. He struggled to find a job and after a traumatic bout of appendicitis he returned to Iraq. Back in Iraq, his options grew dim and hope faded. Ashur began to despair of life itself. In the depth of despair, Ashur encountered his faith in a new and vibrant way.
“When I was young, my family went to church. I always had a feeling that God was with me. But I didn’t know Jesus until my father died. I knew him in my head, but not his presence. Because we lived in a Muslim society – where they don’t believe in the Trinity – there were times in my life that I did not really want to pray to Jesus. But he touched me and changed my life. At my lowest point, I was sitting on the roof of a building looking off the edge of the third story. I honestly began to think about jumping. But Jesus met me in that place. I felt as if he grabbed me. I knew that he was real. And everything good happened after that.”
After that crisis point, Ashur made a personal commitment to read the Bible every day. In the midst of great personal turmoil he has kept that commitment and found it to be a source of spiritual life. He returned to America where he stayed with a friend that he knew from Iraq. He has worked hard in a variety of low paying jobs but has finally been received into an army training program and the promise of a solid career.
I asked him to reflect on the complexities of his life in Iraq. He told me, “I love my Kurdish neighbors.” But he was also wary of the wide range of interactions that were possible. “There is a spectrum of ways that my Muslim neighbors might interact with me. Since Saddam fell, Kurdistan has become more religiously observant. Some people can start off friendly – religiously moderate – and then they change. Some people get drawn towards radicalization. There are a lot of signals that help me determine if a person is safe. How they dress, how they talk to women.
Ashur expressed concerns about processes that shifted some people towards radicalization. Often, people who feel like they have few options and little hope can be easily swayed. He has concerns about what might be taught in a particular mosque and expressed a belief that some housed recruiters for more radical expressions of Islam. He described his perception of how this might play out.
“There are people that you know in the community that will disappear for a period of time. You know that they are doing something wrong. Someone came to him and recruited him to do something violent. Poverty is a big factor. A lot of these people who are poor are the ones who disappear.”
The varied experiences that Ashur has with Islam are not easily reconciled. On one hand, he summarized the experience of Christians in the Middle East as being very difficult. “If you are a Christian, you are still a second-level citizen.” On the other hand, he is thankful for the hospitality of many Muslim neighbors and misses the communal nature of Middle-Eastern life. Perhaps it would be best summarized by an observation he made about daily life back in Iraq. “You have to take each person one by one,” he said. “You have to get to know people.”
*Ashur’s name and personal information have been changed for the safety of his family still in Iraq.