Restoring Dignity to the Refugee

Hey Friends! My name is Andy McNeely and I am a lover of people, and I’m sure if we met, we would become fast friends, so I greet you as a friend. Here’s a little bit about my story so you’ll feel more like a friend. I grew up in Harford County, MD and have done ministry for 6 years in this beautiful state. My wife and I are moving to Baltimore City this summer to plant a new church and we are thrilled to be partnering with The Foundry! In preparation for starting a new church, we have been in a two-year residency at Restore Church in Silver Spring, MD. One of the most formational experiences I had in my residency was leading two trips to Athens, Greece to serve Syrian and Afghan refugees. I’d like to tell you about my experiences, but first let me share with you a prayer I prayed two years ago.

“God, draw me into deep relationship with whoever I have made a “them””.

Allow me to explain. Brian Zahnd concludes his incredible book Farewell to Mars with these profound eight words: “There is no them. There is only us.” You should read the book, but I’ll help you understand what he means. “Them” are the people who look different from you, speak other languages, or worship alternatively. It’s the “other” we separate ourselves from as we surround ourselves with those who look and act like us. As an American, the “them” are Middle Easterners, Mexicans, Democrats/Republicans, the poor, etc. For me, our culture told me that as a middle class white male, the “them” were African-Americans, the homeless, refugees, immigrants, terrorists, Spanish speakers, and Liberals. I didn’t truly love the “them” like I loved my family, but I wanted to. So I prayed that prayer. And for two years God has shocked me by putting the right people in my path at the right time, so that He could chip away at the walls I had created around myself.

Here’s a taste of what God has done: a month ago, my family became the arms our undocumented Salvadorian neighbors fell into after their family was torn apart. Tonight, my Nigerian friend moves in with us again (much to my 5-year olds joy). At the beginning of March, I had the honor of baptizing a long time homeless friend who we eat with weekly. And this evening, we sat in our front yard around a fire pit with folks from four different countries (faiths ranging from atheist to Buddhist to agnostics), sharing s’mores. And twice God sent me to lead teams from Restore to serve refugees across the globe.

Celebrating with a friend who is homeless after his baptism!

Celebrating with a friend who is homeless after his baptism!

My experiences in Greece serving refugees were profound, to say the least. Syrians, refugees, Afghans, and Muslims are now my friends. They are family. I no longer see them as “other” or “them”. And it has radically altered my view of things.

Another lesson I have learned is that we fear what we don’t know. Living lives surrounded by folks who look like us and believe the same things we do, we find ourselves isolated from the “other," which leads us to make assumptions and believe stereotypes. Instead, Jesus calls us to lean into relationship with the very people we see as the “other” and to treat “them” as our neighbor.

In Luke 10, when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and, "How do we live out the 'love thy neighbor as thyself' commandment?", He responded with the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

If you see everyone as your neighbor, and you treat them like yourself, mercy comes easier, and compassion overflows - especially when you realize that Jesus said, “Whatever you have done for the least of these you have done for me.” The refugee is the least of these, friends. Seemingly so different from us, yet sharing our humanity, because we are all made in the image of God.

Lisa, a personal hero of mine, from Servant Group International (the NGO we serve through in Greece)

Lisa, a personal hero of mine, from Servant Group International (the NGO we serve through in Greece)

As an American it was so important for me to know refugees. To hug them and laugh with them. To see them like Jesus does and not as terrorists. Simultaneously, our Syrian and Afghan brothers and sisters were learning that there are Americans who care about them. Friends, 'refugee' and 'terrorist' are NOT synonymous. I’ve been there - literally. I’ve met beautiful people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine who I was told are my enemy. I refuse to believe the lie any longer. I choose to treat the refugee as my neighbor.

In order to show mercy and restore dignity to these broken and lost people, I want to teach you some things I've learned about refugees…

1.     The folks who make it to Europe from their war-torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are not uneducated, poor, uncultured peoples. It costs $5,000-$20,000 per person to be smuggled through Syria, Turkey, and into Greece. The refugees who make it to Europe have degrees, own businesses, and speak several languages.

2.     When you see boats on TV full of male refugees, remember men aged 10-50 in ISIS controlled territories have two choices: join ISIS or die. You would run, too.

3.     All the refugees we encountered said they plan to return to their beautiful homeland when the war is over. They aren’t coming to take anything from you. They are surviving.

4.     These are beautiful people who have been broken by the travesties of war. They have all lost family members and friends. They need hope, and who better to give it to them than Christians, who know the hope of Jesus Christ?

 A few other thoughts and lessons from the Greeks before I close…

The lovely Greek friends who taught us the following lessons

The lovely Greek friends who taught us the following lessons

1.     SLOW DOWN and enjoy life. Make dinner an event with 7 courses that lasts 3 hours because people are important to you.

2.     If you’re late it’s because you had something important come up. We need to stop ourselves from constantly thinking about what’s next on our calendars and simply be present with the people in front of us.

I pray that you are stirred to do something for your neighbor. To invite the “other” to your dinner table. And to see people like Jesus does.

Blog author and church planter Andy McNeely and his wife, Janet

Blog author and church planter Andy McNeely and his wife, Janet

Josie Barton