Rev Sarah Moore is area president for the United Reformed Church in Cumbria and a CTBI Trustee. She was part of a delegation of twelve women from churches across Britain and Ireland that visited refugee hotspots and refugee projects in Greece in May.
Can you think of a time in your life that you have felt truly and totally desperate. What did that feel like? As we turn to the Bible readings in 1 Kings 17 and Luke 7v11-17 we get a glimpse of desperation. Actually, we get several glimpses of desperation.
These two stories come from the life and ministry of the prophet Elijah. Elijah had spoken against Ahab, then king of Israel, as Ahab and his wife Jezebel had turned away from worship of the God of Israel instead serving and worshipping Baal, god of the neighbouring nation of Sidon. Ahab and Jezebel were not impressed by Elijah’s opposition to their rule and this put Elijah’s life in danger. Elijah had two choices; he could stay in his home with the likely outcome that he would be murdered by agents of his king and queen or he could flee to a place of safety.
The writer of Kings records that the word of the Lord came to Elijah calling him to leave his home and to escape to the east. Elijah escaped and hid himself close to the Wadi Cherith. There he could survive on water from the Wadi and so the story goes the ravens would feed him. Elijah hid near the Wadi for a time but then a drought came and the prophet had to move onwards elsewhere.
Here we get our first glimpse of desperation. Elijah, a prophet of God, was in mortal danger in his own home. Like refugees throughout all time and in all places he had to choose whether to stay and face a dangerous and uncertain future at home or to take a risk and go and try and make a life somewhere new.
I struggle to wrap my head around Elijah’s situation. Even though I have known a number of refugees and asylum seekers over the years and heard their often heart-wrenching stories. Even though I recently travelled to Greece and met people, individuals and families, caught up in the current migrant crisis. I can’t quite imagine what it must be like to leave your home, with only what can be carried, into an unknown future. Not knowing where I might end up, whether I will see again family and friends left behind or those who have left ahead of me. I wonder which of my possessions I would grab. Would I remember to bring the right documents? What would happen to my home and to my possessions that I cannot carry? What about my cats?
While in Greece I got a glimpse of the twenty-first century version of extreme desperation. I met some amazing people, both among the refugees and those who work to support them. I heard some terrible and heart-rending stories. I was reminded that whatever else the migrant crisis is about, it is about real and ordinary people and their lives. It is about vulnerable women, men and children whose homes and lives have been destroyed and who had no alternative than to leave and seek safety in another country.
I was reminded that no one leaves a comfortable middle class professional lifestyle in Syria to walk hundreds of miles, perhaps with children, perhaps while pregnant, probably leaving elderly relatives behind to the mercy of so-called Islamic State and the bombing raids on Homs, Aleppo and other cities, if there is any alternative. I was reminded that no one pays hundreds of euros to people smugglers to get in an overcrowded boat to cross the Mediterranean with their children if they don’t have to. Because lets face it, why would you if you didn’t have to? Who wants to put their children in such danger? Only if your choice is an even greater danger behind you and that boat is a chance?
And so we find ourselves back with Elijah in the Sidonian town of Zarephath. Elijah had to move on because his supply of water in his hiding place had dried up. Ironically perhaps he finds himself homeless deep in the very foreign land where Baal is served and worshipped. And here we meet our second story of desperation.
Elijah was told to travel to Zarephath for there he would find a widow who the Lord had called to look after him. The thing was that the widow had nothing. All she had was the end of a jar of meal and a little oil. She had a son. The widow’s plan was to make a final meal for herself and her son for then they would both surely starve and die.
Elijah finds the widow gathering sticks and asks her to bring him a drink of water. He asks her for some bread but she says that she does not have enough. The widow serves Elijah some water and he promises her that the meagre store of meal and oil would not give out until the harvest comes.
The widow at Zarephath was a woman who had nothing apart from her son and a tiny amount of meal and olive oil. It is sobering too to read this story and remember too that Greece itself is bankrupt with an official unemployment rate of around 25%.
Many of us might remember scenes that we have witnessed though our television screens of drought and famine. Terrible images of people with nothing to eat and nothing to drink. We struggle to comprehend the level of desperation or the reality that people with nothing who are desperate will try to grab what they can. Wouldn’t you, if you were at your wits end trying to get food and water for your children?
The experience of meeting refugee women in Greece has changed my image of who the widow of Zarephath was and who she is today. Now I imagine her as a young woman with a toddler son whose partner has been murdered by Islamic State and who is living in a makeshift refugee camp at a petrol station close to the Greece-Macedonia border.
Can you imagine over two thousand people camped out at a roadside petrol station in the middle of nowhere? Two thousand people who have mostly fled war and who want to journey onwards to find relatives in northern Europe but are stuck. Two thousand people who don’t know what the future holds. Two thousand people who fear that they are better off in a makeshift ‘wild’ refugee camp at a petrol station than in a government run refugee camp.
The people in the refugee camps largely are not starving in regards to food and water but they are starving in other ways. What is their future? What of the children who have missed out on months of education that might turn into years? What of being about to be productive citizens of the world? I met a refugee couple where both were teachers and another who had worked as a paediatrician with an interest in oncology.
I wonder when the rain is going to come for the people camped out in refugee camps, or living in government refugee camps in Greece. Both literal rain – the tents that many people are living in are not designed for long term living – and the rain that brings growth and the promise of the harvest to come and there finally being enough.
The other glimpses of desperation we hear in the readings concern the death of two children. The first is the son of the widow we met earlier. The second is the son of the widow at Nain. I am not a parent, and I am not a parent who has had a child that has died. I have friends and relatives who have been touched by the experience of miscarriage and whose children have died. Perhaps there are some folk here who know that agony. The agony of a parent who has lost a child is raw and is without solution. I have been told by those who have been there that it never goes away.
Many of us may have seen images of children who have died as a result of the war in Syria and her neighbours. Some as a result of the bombs and some at sea. There are hundreds if not thousands of mothers and fathers in agony. Of course those children do not get literally raised and we might wonder how helpful these stories actually are in response to real situations.
We might read these two stories of children being raised and wonder what to do with them? We might read them as a metaphor and consider what sign of hope, what sign of resurrection we might find in the current refugee crisis. What hope is there for the modern day widow of Zarephath camping at the petrol station in northern Greece?
Many of the people that I met in Greece are trying to make the best of a terrible situation. I met people who had hope that the future would be better. I witnessed people from many agencies trying to ease the catalogue of misery that is present in the camps. At the camp at the petrol station many of the people there were welcoming and friendly.
However, something bigger needs to happen. The war in Syria needs to end so that these people can return home (and be clear that this is what almost all the refugees from there want). Here in Europe we need to understand that we hold a collective responsibility to respond positively to this biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. This is not only the problem of Greece and Italy.
I stand with the refugees in Greece and yearn with them for a better world. The scripture readings hold up a mirror to our world and help us to hope that new life is a possibility for all people.
We are called to stand with the twenty-first century widows (and widowers) of Zarephath who are sitting in refugee camps. We stand with them remembering that they are people who are like us. Who want to live in safety. Who want to have enough. Who hope for a new dawn of hope and life.
© Sarah Moore 2016
Photos: Sarah Moore and Esme Allen.