This reflection and response is adapted from material originally written by Brian Radcliffe and developed by Jenny Belshaw for use in Kilmakee Presbyterian Church in December 2016. While written to be delivered by three readers, it could also be spoken by a single voice. A Christmas Reflection and Response on Refugees is available.
Reader 1: Good morning. We’d like to tell you a seasonal story.
Reader 2: Once upon a time there was a Palestinian couple. The man was a skilled professional. While they weren’t poor, they weren’t exactly affluent. They lived in a small town and were planning to marry.
Reader 3: Sadly, their lives weren’t entirely under their own control. Palestine was under the thumb of an occupying force. A western European government, far away across a treacherous sea, formed an administration and laid down the law, often brutally.
Reader 1: For their own reasons, the government officials of that faraway country decided to count every member of the population, including the occupied lands. But, rather than just counting people where they lived, they forced every man to take his family with him and return to the place where he was born. For this particular couple, it meant a journey by road to a town many miles away.
Reader 2: Oh, by the way, the woman was pregnant. Not three months, or even six months, but nearly full term. The last thing she needed was a long, hot, uncomfortable journey. Fortunately, they had enough money to be able to afford a donkey. The poor beast carried the exhausted woman whenever she became too tired to walk. It can’t have been a pleasant experience for either of them.
Reader 3: But when the occupying government says ‘Go!’, everyone obeys including the sick, the disabled, the babes in arms, the elderly … and the pregnant. The roads were full and progress was slow, not helped by the lady’s condition. When the couple eventually reached the town where the count was to take place, all the accommodation had long since been taken.
Reader 1: They were turned away many times by residents now fed up with the influx of visitors. The novelty of having their inns full and their shops buzzing had long since worn off. Finally, due to the kindness of one man, they were able to camp for the night in a barn behind his bed and breakfast.
Reader 2: Maybe it was down to the jolting of the donkey on which she’d been riding. Maybe it was just her time. But the night the couple arrived in town, the woman went into labour and gave birth to a boy. As was the custom, they swaddled him in layers of fabric to keep him warm and comfortable. He was placed in a makeshift bed, a cattle trough, surrounded by the warmth of animals.
Reader 3: We assume they all made it to the count and once they were ready, they prepared to return home. Though I wonder whether the new baby was added to the census?
Reader 2: However, a new crisis was looming for this travelling family. Fearing a threat to the security of the country, The local authorities organised a cull of all the male children who had been born in the previous few years. Boys were torn from their mothers’ arms and slaughtered in the streets. The family fled for their lives, enduring yet another long and arduous journey, This time as refugees, without home, possessions or friends. They sought asylum in a country a long way from their home and eventually found safety.
Reader 1: You recognise the story, of course? We cut out the shepherds, the star, the wise men and lots of other details. But it’s the traditional Christmas story. Or is it?
Reader 2: The experience of this family and their story has parallels with the experience today and stories of many migrant families, many refugee families and many asylum-seeking families who have been making their way from the Middle East and Africa, searching for a place of safety. They’ve been forced to travel – inside their countries and often crossing borders to flee further afield – by the actions of governments for fear for their lives.
Reader 3: For months we’ve watched and read news stories from Greece and Italy, from Hungary, from Germany and France. We’ve seen refugees on crowded flimsy boats, families asphyxiated in locked lorries, tent cities on the coastline of holiday resorts. We’ve seen the horror of drowned children and orphans separated from their families, lost in the chaos. To our shame many of us have become immune to these images and just switch off the TV or turn turn the page in the newspaper.
Reader 2: Some people have supported as best they can and been drawn to give money or food or clothing to these families. Many more expressed their opinion by supporting some of the arguments put forward in the UK’s EU Referendum. Deep down many of us have at least some concerns about how a small island such as ours can best fulfil its moral obligation to help fellow human beings in their time of huge need.
Reader 1: As we approach Christmas, let’s allow the Jesus story and today’s news to interact with each other. Bring to mind the images you’ve seen of refugees making their way along roads, the images of temporary accommodation, of babies born in railway stations, and let these become the images of the Christmas story.
Reader 2: We can easily be tempted to airbrush the experience of Joseph and, especially, Mary. The birth of Jesus couldn’t have been an easy or cosy experience for her. The stable would not have been clean and the facilities inadequate to say the least. Yet this, Christians believe, was how God chose to enter our world: to identify with those on the lower rungs of the ladder. He became one of us. He identified with our difficult lives.
Reader 3: On the other hand, let’s believe that there is hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation for many of the refugees we see. If governments live up to their responsibilities, it governments work together, if we offer something of the plenty that we have, if we are welcoming to those who are without friends, without country, some without family, then a new life beckons.
Reader 2: At the very least we can welcome newcomers into our fellowship. It will change the way we have always done things. It will call upon us to be flexible. Showing the love of Jesus does not have to balanced with a worry about a financial cost to us or to a government. Far from being a burden on society, those who settle in new societies – temporarily or permanently – enrich our lives and give back so much more than they receive. They’re a blessing to us. Can we refuse a blessing?
Reader 1: As Christians, we believe the birth of Jesus represents the beginning of a whole new era for humanity. Maybe current flows of migration can represent the beginning of another new era for us. People who we didn’t know yesterday can be our friends today. And as well as financial support or giving of our time at home or abroad, we shouldn’t forget to pray for those who have travelled far, who have experienced harsh regimes, and who have much to teach us about how to live in God’s hands.