There's the theme of the sojourner: the foreigner, the homeless, the outcast who seeks a place to rest in an often hostile land. True: for a cultural minority there is no place like home for the holidays. But for many, many others—like the Holy Family itself—home is an elusive vision, complexified by relocation, or political asylum, or immigration, or domestic strife, or any number of social systems that bind and oppress. Travelers come following a Star but must leave for home by another road; some may never settle anywhere at all. These wandering voices, too, are part of the Christmas story and should not be neglected.
When I first began speaking at churches and social action groups about refugees, many didn't know about the present crisis. That was only three years ago, but back then, refugees weren't on our nightly news.
We didn't see pictures of overcrowded rafts on the Mediterranean, African and Middle Eastern arms reaching up for help. Our Facebook feeds didn't hold videos of ecstatic and tear-filled reunions between relatives separated along the journey. We didn't read the tweets of Syrians starving to death in a besieged city. Granted, all these things were still happening, we just didn't know about it.
Today, it's a different story.
The news regularly reports on the Mediterranean and Syrian refugee crisis (albeit, leaving out other major countries in conflict like Afghanistan and Somalia). This past year, the number of refugees the US accepts was hotly contested (the proposed number was still less than what we accepted in the early 90's). And Instagram is about the only social media outlet left if you want to avoid seeing refugees.
With 65 million people displaced, the world is seeing more refugees than ever before.
At Christmas time, I'm reminded that refugees are not a recent phenomenon. After Jesus was born, Herod ordered a mass infanticide, putting the Messiah's life at risk. Just as Jeremiah prophesied, Bethlehem became a land of "weeping and great mourning", similar to present-day Syria or Somalia.
Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt for refuge like the angel commanded, but in a strange turn of events, the ones who couldn't find a place to stay among Joseph's relatives were accepted by those with a different ethnicity and religion.
This story happens within a few pages in the Bible, but for Mary and Joseph, the angel simply told them to go to Egypt until it was safe. They didn't know if it was for weeks, months or years. They lived in the uncertainty that so many refugees find themselves in today. This story happens within one chapter, so when we read it, it can come across as they left and then they came back. In reality, they left, they waited and waited, and then finally they were able to come back.
From Jesus' own experience as a refugee to David hiding in the wilderness to the Israelites in Exile, the Bible is dripping with stories of those running, fleeing and desperately seeking safety and refuge.
For my refugee friends, these stories show a God who empathizes and saves, who has been a refugee himself and who has been faithful to his people who were displaced.
When someone experiences trauma, the body's natural response is to isolate. Our brains tell us that no one can understand what we went through, no one can relate. When I listen to a refugee's story, I can cognitively understand it and possibly feel a small fraction of their emotions, but I will never fully grasp what they went through. Yet, there is a God, a God, who can empathize and relate.
For me, I wonder how a good God could allow all this suffering to happen. Where was he when my friend was raped? Where was he when their children died? When their raft collapsed? When the terrorist cell invaded their town?
While the Bible doesn't directly answer the age-old question of why God doesn't stop bad things from happening, these stories show us a God who is present. A God who journeyed with Mary and Joseph. A God who listened as David cried out. A God who was faithful and forgave the Israelites over and over again.
I need my refugee friends to open my eyes to this God, the One who suffered and the One who is there throughout the suffering.
When I lived in Athens, I attended an Anglican church. The church felt unusually somber the Sunday after Christmas as I made my way to a seat in the back. Usually, Christmas is a joyous time, did something happen? I thought.
The liturgy for that day resembled a funeral but it wasn't for one particular person. It was for all the lives lost in Herod's infanticide, for all the children who are killed in wars and street violence today and for those in the congregation who had lost children. This service gave the church a moment to mourn after a busy holiday season.
Within the joy of Christmas, there is also suffering. The Savior of the world has been born. But it created social disgrace for Mary and Joseph. It caused mothers and fathers to bury their children. It forced a family, the Holy Family, to become refugees. The birth that changed the world for the better, first, ushered in pain. The birth of the One who would bring a new Kingdom, one without tears or pain, was accompanied by deep suffering and grief.
Strangely, this is where our hope lies—not in the absence of suffering, but in the midst of it. If we can have hope in our suffering, we can hope in and for places like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
If the prophecies that included God's plan for salvation, also included weeping and displacement, there is hope that God has a plan for those who are weeping and displaced. The Christmas story shows us that Christ is found in both joy and suffering. And if Christ is found in both joy and suffering, this is where I want to be.
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Related Books for Children
Here are some resources we recommend reading with kids. In the US and across the world, Muslims are experiencing discrimination and violence at increasingly high rates. One way to combat this is by reading books with our children that show a more accurate picture of refugees, Muslims and Islam.
Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan by Tony O'Brien — A book for older children, O'Brien captures both stories and pictures straight from Afghanistan and brings them to us. It almost feels like we traveled there!
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams — Two girls in a refugee camp in Pakistan. One pair of shoes. Watch as they develop a friendship through sharing their shoes as we learn more about what life is like in the refugee camps and for those applying for asylum.
It's Ramadan, Curious George by H. A. Rey and Hena Khan — As I interact with Christians on the topic of Islam (and listen to pastors talk about it), I've noticed some false beliefs have crept in. Learning alongside Curious George, this book details one of the pillars of the Muslim faith, as well as the cultural holiday that accompanies it.
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan — Kite fighting is one of the largest sports in the Middle East. During the annual city tournament, it is also the time a Pakistani boy with a disability gets to be "king". This story of bullies and right and wrong feels similar to ones we read in America, but the setting allows us to explore another side of the world.
My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed — Moving to a new country is hard. Moving to a new country where no one speaks your language, even harder. Shared from the perspective of Sangoel, this book will help your child empathize with those who are new.
Psalm Twenty-Three by Tim Ladwig — Ladwig illustrates this popular psalm with images of life in a low-income community. He celebrates the strength, community, joy and the ways God provides for us in such a beautiful way, it's almost impossible not to cry!
When I Get Older: The Story Behind "Wavin' Flag" by K'Naan — In 2010, K'Naan's World Cup anthem, "Wavin' Flag" took the world by storm. This former refugee turned international superstar shares the origin of this song and his journey from Somalia to being resettled in Canada, always reminding us that our struggles make us stronger each day.
International Teams is a global nonprofit organization fueling a movement to change the future of communities worldwide through integrated community transformation. We bring people together to help the oppressed to see lives and communities transformed by the power of God. With Jesus and with each other, we change the future.