“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt…” –Matthew 2:13-14
They leave as suddenly as they came, without warning or notice. Gathering what few belongings they own, a young mother swiftly packs their things while her husband prepares for the long journey ahead. Her newborn softly coos from the corner and she rushes to his side—they must leave as quickly and as quietly as they can. And with that, they flee into the silent night with one objective in mind: escape.
For countless men, women, and children around the world, this objective is a shared one, and the above scenario provides just a glimpse into the harrowing reality they and their families face every day.
They are refugees.
The refugee crisis is no small one. According to USA for UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are an estimated 25.4 million refugees around the world today—a record high. Two-thirds of all refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. Fifty-three percent of refugees are school-aged children under the age of 18, and 3.5 million of those children are not enrolled in school.
But “refugee” does not simply mean a person who leaves their country to move to another. USA for UNHCR defines a refugee as a person forced to flee their country because of violence or persecution and who most likely cannot return home or is afraid to do so.
Dr. George Pickens, professor of theology and mission and director of Messiah’s program in peace and conflict studies, defines a refugee as “someone who has fled from their homeland not because they desired to, but for reasons of personal safety.” Persecution, religion, ethnicity, political views, war, and natural and manmade disaster are all contributing factors that force refugees to flee from their home country.
When we consider this definition, is it not true, then, that Jesus wasn’t just a Savior and Lord, but also a refugee?
Many of us are familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth—how Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin, how she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to find there was no room at the inn, how an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and how the three wise men visited the newborn King bringing gifts to their Lord. That is the Christmas story we know and celebrate—but how many of us bother to read on?
The Gospel account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew is clear that shortly after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph fled with him from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. “Herod, the Roman puppet governor, was fearful that this child would have a large following that would threaten his position,” Pickens adds. “He saw Jesus as a political threat, so he sought to find Jesus and kill Him, and indeed he did kill many infants about Jesus’ age.” In an effort to eliminate this potential threat to power, Herod gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years old and under—but Mary and Joseph escaped in time. In Matthew 2, we read how God appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Jesus and Mary and go to Egypt until He told them it was safe to return.
“So as part of that, Jesus and his parents fled. They were refugees,” Pickens affirms. “They fled for their safety. They fled to preserve the Son of God.”
And they went to Africa. Though we typically tend to group Egypt as part of a political construct of the Middle East, Egypt geographically resides in the continent of Africa. As a result, the concept of Jesus as a refugee is a fairly common theme in African theology.
“Jesus never stepped foot in Europe. Jesus was in Africa, His feet touched the soil of Africa,” Pickens explains. Pickens previously served as a missionary and teacher in Kenya, and he describes how Africans identify with their refugee-Savior: “He was here, He was among us, and we gave Him refuge.”
For Gloria Igihozo, chair of the Multicultural Council and senior biochemistry major, the reality of the refugee is all-too-familiar. Born to parents who fled from their home in Rwanda to the Congo during the Rwandan genocide, Igihozo is ever-conscious of the xenophobic attitude some nations adopt towards refugees.
“I never really thought of refugees being bad people,” Igihozo says. “To me, a refugee is not an ‘other’. A refugee is my mom, my dad, my siblings, my family, my friends.”
Coming to the United States was a startling reality for Igihozo—never had she seen the idea of refugee as other so prevalent, so pervasive. “It scared me,” she admits.
In Rwanda, refugees from Burundi flee to the country regularly as well as refugees from other parts of the African continent. “For me, the act of accepting refugees was more an act of accepting another brother that’s going through a hardship,” Igihozo says, “so I never saw it as somebody intruding or posing a threat on my country. Somebody needs a home and we have land, so why not provide that person with a home?”
In our Western culture, the concept of Jesus as a refugee does not resonate nearly as much with our theology as it would with refugees themselves. Still, the fact that Jesus was a refugee is theologically significant.
“We can see from the very birth of Jesus how what He came to do, what He came to be, was countercultural—and threatening, and risky,” Pickens says. “So when we try to domesticate Jesus—when we try to make the Gospel fit easily into our postmodern, secular, affluent lives—Jesus the refugee should speak to us, that God revealed God-self in this refugee. That says a great deal about who Jesus was and what our faith is meant to be.”
Indeed, what Jesus did and preached on this earth was truly revolutionary—He loved the vagabonds and the marginalized, the outcasts and the unwelcomed. And not only did he love them, but he recognized, restored, and accepted them. Essentially, Jesus was in the practice of humanizing who society deemed as less than human.
This is where many Christians get tied up: how do they, not only as members of a Western culture but, moreover, as Christ-followers, love their refugee neighbor?
Just as Jesus demonstrated, the first step is humanization. “Before we see someone as a refugee, you see them as a person and you see them in Christ first, and that changes your perspective,” AnnaMarie Lively, senior politics and international relations major, says. “Not only do we talk about serving the people who Christ served, but we serve the people who Christ actually identified with. That was who He felt embodied His walk on earth.”
Lively serves as the campus coordinator for the RISE Retreat, which stands for Refugee and Immigrant Services for Empowerment. Partnering with the Migrant Education Program of Pennsylvania, the retreat was started nearly 20 years ago by a Messiah faculty member who wanted to give immigrant and refugee students in the local area the opportunity to start exploring the educational track to college. Nearly 30-50 high school and middle school students participate, and they are matched with Messiah student volunteers who serve as their “buddies” for the day.
According to Lively, the RISE retreat hosts refugee students from a variety of countries, ranging from Central America to Nepal to Northern Africa. “With the RISE retreat, we’re not talking about students as refugees and immigrants the whole time they’re on campus—we’re talking about them like they’re students,” Lively says. “It humanizes the person in front of you—they’re a student, you’re putting a face to a name, and you’re not thinking about their background as much as you’re just building a relationship. You remove the political nature of the term refugee when you’re just having lunch with somebody and eating pizza or going on a scavenger hunt.”
Lively believes that when we think of loving your neighbor as yourself, we all have an idea of who that neighbor is, but it’s usually not the person you think of. “It’s the people you don’t see that are really your neighbors. I think that’s important to remember as Christians, too.”
So let’s love our neighbor beyond the person next door. Let’s be quick to listen and slow to speak. Let’s seek stories and spend time with those whose homes look different from ours.
“As a Christian, as I think about refugees and how I think about my Lord, how this is part of His identity on earth, this then should certainly shape the way I approach refugees and also the way I approach the rest of the world—with humility, with service, with selflessness, particularly to the most vulnerable in our society and in our world,” Pickens asserts.
“That’s what Jesus was, and that’s what He teaches us to be.”
Want to get involved? Visit https://www.unrefugees.org for more information on the refugee crisis or visit the Agapé Center to see how you can get involved with local churches and organizations who provide help and aid to refugees. To learn more about the RISE Retreat, contact AnnaMarie Lively at firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteers are always welcome!