I read a story this week – it was a story I really didn’t want to deal with but there it was before me and I read it. It wasn’t easy and it haunted me somewhat but that’s the nature of stories – sometimes they lift and inspire, sometimes they express a deep truth and sometimes they confront and haunt you.
It was the story of a family. This family was simple, relatively poor and vulnerable. They were living in a small town in the Middle East amidst the turbulence of geo-political rivalries, conflict, economic injustice and the ravages or power abuse. Things seemed to be relatively peaceful in their small, insignificant village away from the forces of persecution. The parents and their child lived and went about life in their simple way without harming anyone.
Suddenly the persecution began. Soldiers and armies came through the region and had their way with the people. No-one was safe – even children. In fact one of the means of control was to remove the sons of families. It’s common enough – perhaps these will be the future resistance fighters and therefore they are killed before there is trouble. The powers that be in their world seemed crazy and controlled murderous regimes that didn’t flinch at murder of innocents.
The father was afraid – for himself and more-so for his family, his young wife and infant son. He didn’t know where to go or what to do. He had no resources, no money and no clear options for safety. One night as panic seized and he prayed to his God, he felt that they needed to go – NOW! They packed what they could carry, looked around their home one last time and then set out. There was no car for them to drive – no transport but the legs they were born with. They walked and walked. There were periods of hiding from soldiers and they slept in the hills and along the road that headed south.
They walked and walked and were no longer sure of time. Others were escaping as well but no-one knew whom to trust. They walked onwards to who knew where – somewhere they could be safe. It was hazardous and the dangers confronted them daily – hot sun, rocky hill passes, desert regions with little water, little access to food – dangers all the way.
Finally they arrived somewhere where there was habitation. Was it safe? Could they stop here, live here? Where were they?
They were so tired, distressed and desperate that anywhere was fine as long as there weren’t soldiers looking for them. They would risk staying here as they had no energy to carry on. So they stopped and found shelter, along with others escaping the violence and persecution. The locals seemed friendly and though language were different they learned to communicate and gradually learned enough language to get along.
There wasn’t much work but the father did what he could to get food on the table. Gradually things settled down and they lived there some years. They never really knew it as home but it was where they lived and had been welcomed in their desperate time of need. After some years the powers in their old country changed and so did the politics and believing it to be safe again they yearned to return home and find their family. After more prayer and pondering the father packed everything up and once again they made their way back to their homeland, this time to a village in the north with their extended family. It was different but it was home.
I can’t really describe what this family and others like them experienced. I can’t describe the fear and desperation. I can’t describe the hardships and poverty, the dangers of the journey or arriving in a strange land with nothing! I can’t imagine the life they lived in a strange land, nor the relief they felt at being accepted. I can only read between the lines and wonder…
You can read this story, along with many other such stories, in the Bible. It happens to be one of our readings this Sunday – Matthew 2:13-23. It tells of Jesus’ family seeking refuge in a foreign land because of persecution. It tells of their flight to Egypt and return when the evil King dies. There aren’t too many details but you might try to imagine what it was like. You might like to imagine what it might have been like if the evil powers had gotten to this family and killed the oldest male – we may never have heard this story and we would not be celebrating Christmas because it was the infant Jesus who was being hunted and his family were refugees.
This haunting story reflects the stories of so many through the Old Testament history of the Jewish people. It reflects the stories of so many people throughout the world throughout history. It reflects the experiences, the hopes and the fears of so many people.
We don’t understand it because we have relative peace and we aren’t persecuted or threatened by authorities. We aren’t chased through the streets by soldiers or under surveillance by authorities. We aren’t threatened or imprisoned and our family members aren’t taken from their beds and made to disappear. We don’t know the absolute desperation of these people and yet through our successive governments we have judged them harshly, detained them, treated them as criminals and sent them away to strange places. We have believed them to be illegal and a threat to our freedom. There are so many bizarre notions about refugees and the radio shock jocks have a field day abusing them and delivering up all manner of warped, untrue stories about desperate, vulnerable people.
The Holy Family were welcomed in Egypt, given a place to live in safety and raise their son (perhaps a growing family by then?). They weren’t locked away or treated as criminals.
As we approach a new year we might pray for those in our world who are refugees (~15.5 million), asylum seekers (~1 million) and displaced persons (~30 million). These are homeless people anf those escaping torture, persecution and the threat of death from regimes and authorities we don’t comprehend.
We could help change the heart of Australia who does a little bit, but of late has been strangely violent towards these desperate people – locking them away, withholding rights… We rate a very long way down the scale of nations receiving these vulnerable people. It isn’t like Australia to kick someone when their down. May the God of peace, grace and love who holds us all in generous and just love reach out through us to bring peace and hope to others.