When Lindsay Shaw visited a church in a Middle East city suburb he found local Christians and newly arrived refugees both encountering God in new ways
When I stepped from the car into a quiet street and saw a church entrance crowded with chairs for an expected overflow of worshippers, my concerns evaporated and I soon discovered the truth of the first statement.
A church regular told me and my companions that around 80 to 85 per cent of the congregation who would soon arrive at this first Sunday morning service would be Syrians. The church has been giving practical help and building trust and friendship with hundreds of families, most of whom live in a neighbouring district, which is a hub for the refugee community.
Addressing refugee and local needs
After a short time of gentle worship before the service, the modern worship space quickly filled up with 200 worshippers. We enjoyed an action song performed by 15 enthusiastic children before the minister brought an exposition of Ephesians 1:15-22 that skilfully, and in simple language, seemed to address the pastoral needs of both local Christians and refugee worshippers from a Muslim background.
“God has invited us to have hope,” they were told. “He will change the hearts of people through love. God wants to release us from evil and hatred.”
Those who have the hope Paul was talking about – “faith that heaven will come to earth, that the joy of heaven will come in Jesus” will be “a lighthouse to the world”, the pastor continued. “Paul said we can see the pain of the present world is nothing compared to the future glories God will bring.”
When the pastor came to explain the resurrection power of Christ at work in believers, the congregation were gripped. “Do you know that the God of the whole world is for you?” he asked. “The One who beat death with His own death stands behind you! This life came out of death. No matter what your situation, even if it is death, Jesus brings you life!”
At this statement, calm, attentive listeners suddenly burst into applause. The service ended with a joyful Arabic worship song set to a marching rhythm and the handclaps of a newly inspired congregation.
On a journey together
This is a congregation where barriers between migrants and locals are being dismantled, but in some ways they already have much in common as do we, Western Christians, with them. Throughout the Bible, there is a strong sense that all the people of God are in reality migrants and aliens, “strangers and exiles”. People who, like Abraham, are looking forward to another homeland with God (Hebrews 11:8-9, 13-14).
Among this congregation it was clear that most were physical exiles from their home country. Their painful relocation and sense of loss are being eased by Christians who are following God’s heart: loving the foreigner and caring for the widow and orphan (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). It was also obvious that many attending had also embarked on a journey of faith that they might never have anticipated. In this foreign land, they were learning for the first time about a God of love and hope who has sent His Son to rescue them.
After the service Hanan*, a Syrian lady of around 50, told me how she fled to this country for her children’s safety.
“I lived far from any church and knew nothing about Jesus,” she said. “I had never been to church before but I found a warm welcome here. I was attracted by the love, peace and joy.”
She said she remembered once seeing the Jesus film on TV and puzzling over why Jesus was killed and nails driven through His hands. “I didn’t understand why He was hurt although He was good,” she explained. “Now I have come to this church and came to know Christ in the last year I understand why.
“My country is still at war,” she added, but “Since I came to know Christ my heart is at peace.”
Ministering to Syrians like Hanan is also giving national Christians at the church a new experience of God in their midst.
Clara*, an active church member of about 30, told me she has never seen anything like it. “It’s God’s divine intervention,” she said. “They showed up on our doorstep and we welcomed them and we want to show them the love of Jesus. Maybe they came for food at first but then they learned about Jesus and they fell in love with Him – the person who shows them a love they have never known before.”
In addition to providing relief supplies, the church aims to care for the whole family and their emotional needs. The church has a learning support project for children who have missed out on schooling, and everyone can join fellowship groups if they want to learn more about Christianity. “We teach them the Bible simply as if they are small children in Sunday school, beginning by telling Bible stories,” Clara said.
And God is meeting them in miraculous ways. “We’ve experienced many healings,” Clara continued. “When people need big medical operations and we don’t have the capacity to pay, we pray – it’s all we can offer. Then two days later they come and say the check-up showed no cancer, ‘I’m healed!’ – and we are amazed. This has happened before but not to the same extent. We see it so frequently that it’s become normal.”
While Syrians are coming to Christ for the first time, the local believers are also seeing their faith grow in unexpected ways. “My faith has become stronger of course,” Clara said. “Things are happening that you read about in the Bible. It’s like the first chapters of Acts!”
Making Jesus known through satellite television
While growing numbers of Middle East refugees are encountering the Christian faith in the countries where they have fled, SAT-7’s broadcasts also make the Good News available throughout the region to anyone watching at home on satellite television. Programmes both explain the Christian message and show it in action through documentaries, talk shows and church broadcasts. Special shows also address the specific needs of those uprooted from their homes and countries by violence. Learn more
*Names changed for security reasons