Founded in 1964, the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME) is an organisation of churches and ecumenical councils from eighteen European countries. Over the years it’s work has developed and currently it provides a space for churches and Christian agencies to share their experiences in the ministry among migrants, refugees, and minority ethnic persons. It covers the whole area of migration and integration, refugees and asylum, and racism and xenophobia. It is one of the most focussed and effective of the ecumenical organisations of which the Church of Scotland is a part.
The current work of the Commission is centred around a number of topics. As with so much of what churches do, some of these are externally focussed and some are internally focussed. So, on behalf of the churches, is CCME seeking to make effective representations to European policy and decision makers on matters such as how Europe can better protect refugees; how governments can promote human dignity in the process of labour migration; and how they may counter contemporary forms of slavery, in particular the trafficking in human beings.
It is part of the gift of the church that it never merely calls for change in others. Whenever the church or church organisations get involved in political and social matters, they need to look to their own practices and life. Calling for others to change is meaningless without being prepared to change ourselves. So, CCME seeks to present migration as an opportunity and challenge for the churches, and to provide resources to help Churches be examples of inclusive communities in Europe.
Migration comprises an integral part of Europe’s history and is an important dimension of its current reality. As we are well aware, European citizens continue to emigrate from or move within Europe, while migrants and refugees from other parts of the world arrive to build new lives in a European home. Although there are challenges associated with the settlement of newcomers and longer-term residents in Europe, such individuals widely contribute to Europe’s economic well-being and serve to further enrich its diverse cultures.
Europe’s tradition of protecting human rights, of integrating migrants and refugees and of cherishing cultural diversity, however, is currently under strain. By their faith and their calling, churches are well positioned to promote mutual understanding and acceptance between various communities and to play an active part in the building of a just society of cultural, racial and religious diversity.
There is so much going on at the moment which makes this work of critical importance. There is the rise of anti-immigrant political parties across Europe, the United Kingdom Independence Party being but one example. There are the moves being made by the current government in Westminster to take the United Kingdom out of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, something about which the General Assembly last month expressed grave concerns. There are the huge numbers of refugees from the war in Syria and neighbouring countries who are right on Europe’s doorstep and there is the daily unfolding tragedy of those who are seeking to cross the Mediterranean, coming from all over Africa through Libya and, if they survive the boat journey across the sea, mostly arriving in Italy or Greece.
It is to Europe’s shame that so many people die trying to get here. Closed borders are proving, literally, to be lethal borders. It is further to Europe’s shame that so many countries, the United Kingdom included, are closing to door to people who are genuine refugees, from war, from persecution, from grinding poverty. As part of its work, CCME is calling on churches and church people this Sunday to pray for and remember those whose lives have been lost on land or sea trying to reach Europe, and those who mourn their loss most keenly, because they loved these people most dearly.
Migration and human movement is older than recorded history. We human beings have always been on the move. The Bible makes this clear. The Old Testament is full of stories of people moving around; people like Abraham and Isaac moved over vast distances for economic reasons. Jacob and his family moved to Egypt because they were starving and there was food available there. The Bible tells us that this was the will of God that they should. Some centuries later, all of Jacob’s descendants were on the move again, guided by and protected by God, to escape what had become a situation of oppression and persecution. It took them forty years to settle in one place. Over the succeeding centuries there are stories of people being forcibly moved as a result of warfare and conquest. Always the prophets discern God in the midst of these great movements, often weeping with the broken hearted.
The New Testament too contains many stories of moving. Jesus was never still for long, and he crossed many cultural, social and national borders. The story of the Church, as it is told in Acts and developed in Paul’s letters is also one of continual movement. The movement of witnesses to Christ into places where no one had heard the good news was the divinely appointed instrument for spreading the Gospel. Movement and migration has continued unceasingly ever since. In fact, it is only relatively recently that the concept of closed borders became a possibility. Up until the end of the nineteenth Century, very few countries were, in any sense, closed. In Europe, there was free movement. The 20th Century changed that.
But we, people of faith, must not allow ourselves to be changed but the wave of sentiment against migration and migrants. There is much in the Bible about the blessing strangers bring. It was strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah who brought news that they would have a longed for child. The Jewish Law contains provisions about treating strangers with respect and kindness and about offering hospitality. In the Letter to the Hebrews, it is written, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Our faith call us, especially when the world is suspicious and unwelcoming, to the point of death, such as we are seeing on the shores and borders of Europe just now, to offer a different witness, a witness of grace and generosity and welcome, a witness of seeing the humanity in the other, of seeing the image of God in the stranger, the refugee, the migrant, just as clearly as we see it in those we have known all our lives. Churches and church people need to say to those whose policies and practices are the cause of such terrible deaths, “This is not being done in our name, for we are people who believe in and practice welcome and sharing.”
Our gospel reading was that well-loved story from Mark of Jesus sleeping through a storm on the Sea of Galilee. We can take all sorts of meanings from it, but today, I encourage you simply to meditate upon it as a means of entering, in our imaginations, into something of the experience of those who set out in little boats, often with too many people aboard, to cross what can be very perilous waters from North Africa. Use it to think of the people and the situations they leave behind. Use it to help you empathise with the terror of those caught in bad weather, and who are not equipped to deal with it.
As the storm engulfed them and the boat was taking on water, the terrified disciples woke Jesus with the words, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Today, we affirm to all those on the seas and at the borders of our continent, that we do care, we do care that they are perishing, and we pray for them and that they may live.