This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the response to the global refugee crisis by The Episcopal Church and its ecumenical and interfaith partners. Other articles in the series are available here.
[Episcopal News Service] A Muslim man from Pakistan stands to share the peace during a Sunday morning service at Church of the Ascension in Munich. It may be different from the kind of worship he’d been used to at his mosque in Peshawar, but he’s one of several refugees who’ve found a welcoming community at the Episcopal parish after being forced to flee extremism and persecution.
“I went to shake his hand and there was no hand there,” said the Rev. Steve Smith, Ascension’s rector. After the service, the man told Smith that the Taliban had blown up his mosque. “He lost his father and he lost his right hand,” said Smith.
Smith has heard similar stories from Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who say that they left “because there was so much violence, so many guns, so many bombs that they just could not risk staying there any more.”
Every Sunday, Church of the Ascension welcomes refugees from the McGraw Camp asylum center, located near the church on the grounds of a former U.S. Army installation.
Run by the Innere Mission, a long-time partner of Ascension, McGraw is a first-stop center where newly arrived refugees are housed until a more permanent location is found.
“Most of them are Muslim, and they are surprised at the welcome that we give them as non-Christians,” Smith told ENS. “They are surprised to be invited to worship with us, but to me it’s a slice of the Kingdom, coming together in worship, praising the one God.”
Munich, the largest city in south Germany, has been the main port of entry for the refugees, many of whom have traveled for weeks to get there. In September alone, Germany welcomed some 200,000 refugees over its border and expects the total number to reach 1 million by the end of the year.
Ascension, part of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, has organized several collections of clothing and toiletries to be distributed to local refugees. Each Thursday afternoon, Ascension and Emmauskirche, the Lutheran church where Ascension worships and has its offices, welcome and host the refugees for food, fellowship, games and German lessons. The number of refugees attending the hospitality afternoon has grown from 10 to 60 since they began in September.
Through a grant from Episcopal Relief & Development, Ascension is expanding its ministry at the McGraw Camp to create a music program and construct a shed for the storage of bicycles that are available for use by the refugees.
Nagulan Nesiah, program officer for Episcopal Relief & Development, said that it’s important for the church to remain a place of refuge for people fleeing various disaster-related and human-made crises worldwide. “This is demonstrated beautifully by the ministry of Church of the Ascension in Munich, where the church has opened its doors for hospitality, worship and accompaniment while maintaining the dignity of those they serve,” he told ENS recently. “In consultation with refugee camps, the Munich church has spent hours in compassionate conversation with the people before determining the church’s role and response.”
Smith said that it had taken a while for the parish to define its ministry, largely because the German authorities have been so well-organized in dealing with the influx of refugees, but also because they wanted to be sure that their response to the crisis was a well-considered and appropriate one.
Ascension’s ministry to refugees goes back some 25 years, when the parish founded the Asylum Seekers Center in partnership with neighborhood Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. “It is through the Center that Ascension first was able to connect with McGraw Camp,” said Smith. “Of course, the current situation has made us redouble our efforts, but we have been at it a long time.”
Like Smith and his parishioners, many Episcopalians and their ecumenical partners throughout Europe don’t see their response to the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II as short term.
Last month, the convocation passed a resolution during its annual convention calling on Episcopalians in Europe to engage in a period of renewed commitment to its ministry of welcome to refugees, education on the issues, working ecumenically, and “advocating for just and compassionate policies at national and international levels that strengthen reception and integration of new migrant populations in our midst.”
“We are called to treat all of God’s children with dignity and respect,” said Smith, “and these refugees are God’s children. Many … are not Christian, but they are still God’s children.
“It is biblically imperative” to respond with compassion, he added. “If we want to be part of the Jesus Movement, we need to do this work.”
Resources for education and response
- The most recent updates from Episcopal Relief & Development about its response to the refugee crisis, as well as ways to donate, are available here.
- Episcopal Migration Ministries, the refugee resettlement service of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, works with local resettlement partners, congregations, and individual volunteers, to welcome refugees to the United States from the world’s most war-torn places.
– Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.