Refugee conference offers reflection, discussion, expertise for way forward
Almost 50 participants from across the Church of the Nazarene's Eurasia Region were challenged by Khalil Halaseh, leader of the church in the Eastern Mediterranean Field, in the opening service of a conference addressing the ongoing refugee situation.
"We need to make history," he said. "This is our chance, our time. Please pray for us.”
Held in Leptokaria, Greece, 31 October to 4 November, the “When Did We See You a Stranger?” conference brought together people involved in refugee ministry from the five Eurasia fields directly affected by the arrival of refugees in need of support.
Apart from creating space for people to spend time encouraging, sharing, and learning from each other, the conference also aimed to synchronize efforts across these fields. The discussions and workshops added depth to the ministries by allowing participants to learn from other practitioners, gain insights for partnerships between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the church, and deepen an understanding of how to engage with refugees from other faith backgrounds.
In the first seminar of the conference, General Superintendent Gustavo Crocker highlighted the fact that the Church of the Nazarene has been involved in refugee ministry for a long time.
“It is in our DNA – it’s who we are,” he said.
However, he also explained that engaging in refugee ministry is somewhat “fashionable” today.
“My hope is that in these next few days we can move from fashion to passion,” Crocker said.
Throughout the conference, people from different countries shared about their ongoing ministries, showing that Nazarenes are involved at all stages of the journey.
“We’re just a small group, but we’re touching the crisis the whole way along – and God is in it,” said Jay Sunberg, Central Europe field strategy coordinator.
Listening to stories from other fields and getting a sense of the “big picture” was a great encouragement to all participants, both in the sense of not feeling alone in the struggle as well as in being challenged to carry on the good work.
“It was an honour to be here and learn about the various country responses," said Nell Becker Sweeden, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries director. "My hope is that we will go back to our local churches and inspire others to open their hearts to the most vulnerable.”
The conference was held in Greece partly because Nazarene volunteers have been engaged in two refugee camps and one local community in Northern Greece since May. They were joined by missionaries Josh and Shannon Herndon in September, who moved to Greece from Spain in order to establish a permanent church presence there. Greece currently houses 50,000 refugees in camps, most of which are not adequate for winter, as Dorothy Tarrant, Nazarene volunteer in Katerini, pointed out on the morning when the first snow appeared on nearby Mt. Olympus. Greece has become a strategic center of Nazarene ministry to refugees.
Dorothee Morris, who has been serving as a volunteer with her husband and two children and arrived in Greece in July, welcomed the conference’s opportunity of “being able to connect with people from the different fields and looking into ways how we can connect our work throughout the region.”
The 49 people who attended the conference included field strategy coordinators, volunteer workers, and representatives from NCM and the international Church of the Nazarene. Outside speakers included Mike Long of the Free Methodist Church in Thessaloniki, Greece, which has been instrumental in providing connections for Nazarenes to engage in refugee work, and Mario Wahnschaffe, a street evangelist and pastor in a Pentecostal church in Bonn, Germany, who shared his insights on faith conversations with refugees.
Each conference day prioritized prayer times in which each field strategy coordinator shared requests from his field. Seminars were presented by Crocker, Kate Bowen Evans, and Wahnschaffe on the Church’s response in different refugee scenarios and alongside NGO responses as well as in the context of discipling people coming from other faiths.
In the afternoons, participants were able to choose from a variety of workshops on topics such as cooperating with refugees in “co-creating Canaan,” practical advice on working with refugees in holistic ministry, caring for staff and volunteers, and ministering to Yazidis and Muslims.
Following the daily workshops, the conference participants divided into five small groups by fields and engaged in roundtable discussions, reflecting on information and insights gained that day and considering how these could be implemented on a church, district, and field level. These discussions provided an excellent space for practical ideas and planning beyond the conference.
Ian Wills, Northern Europe FSC, concluded in the last session that “the church has gifted windows of opportunity – and we miss too many of them,” but that he left optimistic: “It’s been great to be inspired, challenged, and exhausted together!”
In the closing service, Halaseh encouraged all participants to step out in faith and not limit themselves by external circumstances.
“All of us represent churches, districts, fields and the region – all of us represent the Kingdom of God, and we have the passion to reach out, but we need to go further,” Halaseh said. “After all this teaching, please go back a different person. We can’t miss this great season that God has given us!”