Zahra and Ali* were Iranian Christians, persecuted because of their faith, and had fled with their family to seek safety. After having spent some time on Christmas Island, they were moved to Manus Island, and it was here that I met them on one of my first shifts. They were sitting underneath a shelter, and in an attempt to escape the heat, I wandered over and said hello. They introduced themselves, and offered me a cup of tea. Despite the circumstances that they found themselves in, they knew the importance of being hospitable, and welcoming this stranger into what was effectively – for the time being – their home.
Over my time there, Zahra and Ali were the family that I connected with the most. Every shift, I would seek them out, to see how they were doing, and even just to sit with him and chat for a while. I still think of them often, and while I don’t know whether they are still in detention, or whether they have received visas, I pray that one day our paths may cross again.
This past week has been Refugee Week, a week where we recognise the fact that Australia has been a founding father of the United Nation’s Refugee Convention, and has, for over fifty years, had a history of accepting Refugees who flee from dangerous situations, and seek protection in our peaceful nation. My family has had a long history of working with refugee’s. When I was young, my mum was the refugee and migrant worker for the Council of Churches of WA. I remember her working with Croatian refugees, fleeing the war, and being settled by church groups in WA. I remember being dragged off to the airport in the middle of the night, no more than 8 or 9 years old, to welcome Ethiopian refugees who were being reunited with their families – and the parties that followed that would continue into the early hours of the morning. I remember Churches assisting with refugees from Kosovo and East Timor who stayed in the Leeuwin Barracks until it was safe to return or be relocated.
With such a long history of working with these wonderful people, and seeing how welcoming our country is able to be, you can understand how my heart grieves for our country at the moment, where it seems that we aren’t the welcoming country that I know we can be.
But the reality is that Australia is an insular nation. That’s what happens when you’re an island – albeit a big one – you are protective of your land, and suspicious of anything that’s different. I bet you understand that – who still thinks of Liesl and I as “mainlanders”? We trust what we know, and are suspicious of those that are different. It’s who we are as people.
I suspect that the Israelite people would have felt exactly the same way as Australia does at the moment. They had just escaped Egypt, and were forming themselves as a nation. When you look through the laws in Leviticus, there are many laws that are meant to keep the Israelite people separate – to show that they are different to the other nations, that they are not pagans, and are instead God’s chosen people. It would be quite easy for the Israelites to create a fear of the other. I think of the fears that surrounded the Israelites and Samaritans – to the point where Israelites would walk a much longer route to avoid passing through the land of the Samaritans.
But all the same, God puts in place this command to not only treat the foreigner fairly, but to treat them as one of their own. Some translations have it that they should treat them “as if they were native born Israelites”. To me, this is God saying quite clearly that while he wanted to keep the Israelites separate, that separateness must never overrule his command to love all people.
When Jesus is asked what the two greatest commandments are, he boils all of the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus down to just two: Love the Lord your God with everything that you have, and to love your neighbour as yourself. As an explanation to who the neighbour is, Jesus tells us the story of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
36 “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
37 “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
(Luke 10:30-37, Message Translation)
Who was the neighbour? The foreigner. Who did he act neighbourly towards? The “other” – the foreigner to him, the one that the Samaritans would normally avoid.
The people who God asks us to love are the people that we sometimes find it hard to love. The other. THe person who is different to us. It might be because they came from another country, or from the mainland. It might be because they have a different history, have made different choices, wear different clothes, meet with different people, listen to different music, eat different food. No matter what it is – whatever that it is that makes them different, God calls us to love them, and to treat them as one of our own.
We can make that choice to love others. We can make that choice to love people no matter where they come from, who they are, who they were, or who they will be. We can choose to treat all people kindly, no matter who they are, because that’s what God calls us to do.
Here at The Salvation Army Devonport, we’re called to be a Lighthouse to our community, so that others can experience the lifechanging power and freedom found in Christ Jesus. I want to suggest to you all today, that unless we love everyone that comes through our doors, no matter who they are, we will never fulfil that vision. I want to suggest to you all, that if you consider yourself to be a part of The Salvation Army Devonport, that unless we show love to every person that we meet, no matter who they are, and unless we treat them like family, our vision will never be fulfilled.
It is my hope and my prayer that one day, we will see love make a way for refugees and asylum seekers. But, as we know, with such an Insular nation as Australia, in order for us to change our nation, we need to start changing ourselves. We need to start showing love to everyone that we meet, no matter who they are. And we do this because God, who loves us, commands us to love those whom he loves – all people, no matter who they are, what they’ve done, or where they’ve come from.
I’d like to sing a song for you that I wrote, called #LoveMakesAWay. After I’ve sung the bridge, “We will not rest, we will not lay down”, if you want to commit to making love a way in your life, to making love a standard response to everyone you meet, then I invite you to stand, and to join me in the chorus.
* Names have been changed to protect their identity.