Thursday 20 June 2019: World Refugee Day
Refugees: finding hope in the pain of exile
Psalm 137; Luke 1:46-55
By Claire Hargreaves
Refugee and Interfaith Adviser, SE District, The Methodist Church
Context: a medium sized congregation in a semi-rural setting in the South East
Aim: to enable a deeper understanding of what it means to be a refugee
Whoever imagines that they will hear the cry of despair from Psalm 137 on our streets today? Yet if you listen carefully, you may well hear the same emotions from the refugees living among us here. In the last few years, war, particularly the war in Syria, violence and poverty have forced unprecedented numbers of people to flee to Europe and many other parts of the world in search of safety and a better life.
The exiles in the Old Testament who sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept were the victims of violent aggression, just like many refugees today. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and the Israelites were forced to leave, cut off from their homeland and their God. Their oppressors demanded that they sing joyful songs, but how could they sing in such sad circumstances? They were frightened of forgetting their heritage, angry and resentful of the failure of their neighbours to come to their aid, so all they could do was lament. The psalmist describes the exiles’ feelings - loss of identity, despair and hopelessness, a longing to return home and an anxiety to keep faith in their God.
Sitting in Elizabeta’s kitchen in a rundown tenement block in Amman, Jordan, I could have been listening to those exiled Israelites of so long ago. Sadly this was 2015. Tearfully, this young mother pointed to her two daughters and lamented the fact that the other pupils at school were asking why the girls always wore the same dress and shoes and why they did not have the latest toy.
Elizabeta had fled to Jordan from Aleppo in Syria, walking for days with her small daughters and others from her village, fleeing in terror from the violence of Daesh, known as ISIS in the West. Elizabeta was an Armenian Christian, an educated teaching assistant, whose husband owned restaurants and who was used to a comfortable lifestyle. Now she was in exile, relying on charity to help pay the rent on the shabby one room flat and with no idea of what might happen in the future. Even her faith was being shaken; the Armenian Christian Church in Amman had ignored her appeal for help. The little girls kept asking when they could go home. Elizabeta did not know what to say. The psalmist had said it all for her, thousands of years ago.
Elizabeta found herself in a profoundly difficult and unexpected situation. Her life was changed forever. Eventually she would have to find a way of dealing with her new circumstances. There would be no going home. Her house and restaurant had been destroyed by bombing the week after she left.
What is there to sing about in the midst of such trouble?
In the passage from Luke’s gospel, Mary’s life had been turned upside down too. God had chosen her, a young unmarried girl, to bear his son. She was facing disaster, but despite the difficulties, she had trusted God and accepted this sign of the Lord’s favour.
Later, anxious and fearful of the future, she rushed from her village to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant with a child gifted by God. Perhaps she was seeking reassurance that she had done the right thing. If so, Mary received it, for as soon as she saw her, Elizabeth was utterly convinced that Mary had been blessed and her child was of God. Elizabeth’s joy overcame all Mary’s misgivings. Overwhelmed with faith and trust in God, Mary burst into a wonderful song of praise and glory to God, the Magnificat.
With God, there is always the possibility of hope and joy, however terrible the circumstances.
Psalm 137 expresses some of the deepest emotions of those who have been forced from their homes and the life they knew. They are real feelings shared by refugees today. Elizabeta, sitting in her cramped shabby room in Amman, still shocked by the terror and disaster she had suffered, needed time and space to grieve for her loss.
Mary’s song shows how it is possible to sing for joy in the midst of trouble. Her cousin helped to lift her beyond her worldly anxieties to the promise and blessing of a faithful and compassionate God.
May we too be the ones to hold out our hands in friendship, understanding and love so that refugees might find hope and joy again, even in a foreign land.
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