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Being the hands of ‘Christus’ in Germany: Welcoming the stranger

Refugees are human beings.

That, in short, is the reason United Methodists in Germany are welcoming Syrian (and other) refugees into their country and their churches, said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.

Wenner, who has served as the bishop in Germany since 2005, is the first woman elected to the United Methodist episcopacy outside of the United States. The former president of the Council of Bishops is an advocate for churches and individuals who help refugees to be loved and accepted in Germany.

For United Methodists in Germany, there is no question about helping the refugees, said Wenner. "Matthew 25 tells everything," she told Interpreter. "Christ says: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.' We can do no different."

Most of the refugees come with nothing, knowing no one. Their needs are great.

"They need contacts to people, the chance to learn the language, legal support, the possibility to find a job, hope for a future for them and their families," Wenner said. "The spiritual needs are big. Many refugees are getting tired and frustrated because the processes are slow, and they see so many difficulties. Some even go back, despite that they go back into zones of war and violence."

Wenner cited numbers to illustrate the size of the refugee crisis. "In 2015, 159,000 Syrian refugees asked for asylum in Germany. All in all, 442,000 refugees formally asked for asylum." There are now about 1.1 million refugees in Germany, with about two-thirds of them coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

The numbers of refugees are constantly changing in the various places where they are settling.

"Refugees are brought to a certain place for a certain time," she said. Only when they are fully recognized can they choose where to live.

Common effort new

While there are no firm statistics about how many United Methodist churches are helping refugees, Wenner said she believes about two-thirds of the churches are doing some ministry with them. For some, ministry with refugees is a new primary focus for the whole congregation.

"The common effort of all the churches is not typical for Methodists," Wenner said during an interview for last fall with the Rev. Joe Iovino, web content manager at United Methodist Communications. "In addition, many other people are offering help. For Christians – including United Methodists – the biblical references of God's presence in the stranger is a strong motivation."

The pastor of Freiburg, a city in the south of Germany near the border of Switzerland, talked to Wenner about his church's experience.

"He spoke of church members of his fairly small congregation who went to the shelter in Freiburg where refugees from Syria were just arriving," she said. "They asked their fellow Methodists to offer clothes, toys for the kids and sanitary products. After only few hours, they sent a message that people should stop sending their gifts; they received far too much to cope with it."

In addition, several churches offer apartments for refugees. In places where asylum seekers live for a couple of months, churches offer fellowship groups, children's programs, language classes and so on. Many individuals serve as ‘godparents' and provide support to individual refugees. Of course migrants are heartily invited to worship with the churches and many of them make use of the invitation."

The churches are continuing to reach out to the refugees with love, Wenner told Interpreter, expecting nothing in return, but in some cases, the refugees want to become associated with the churches and embrace faith in Christ. The congregation where Wenner regularly worships recently witnessed the baptism of an Iranian couple.

New churches starting

Wenner said she has heard a number of congregations have accepted refugees into their membership. Several have planted new churches.

"We have planted a fast growing Farsi-speaking congregation in Munich, and we have employed a local pastor to do the work," she said. "There are bilingual worship services in several cities like Fuerth, near Nuernberg and Bielefeld. And there are new church members in many places. Farsi-speaking people (Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan) are very open for the gospel. We are also planting an Arabic-speaking congregation with a worship attendance of about 50 adults. They come from various countries. The lay preacher who does the work is from Iraq. And again, we are not the only denomination with this kind of growth."

Even so, Wenner said, the excitement of the people to welcome the strangers has calmed down.

"Throughout the country, there is still a lot of support, but some are tired," she said. "Others are hesitant. They are wondering whether the task is too big. Others are even hostile towards strangers. In the churches, many people continue to do the good work. But it sometimes causes pain for them that they even have to explain why they are still welcoming people."

Respect, protect strangers

So why does Germany seem to be so much more accepting and hospitable to the influx of humans than some other European countries?

Wenner offers her theory.

"Because of all the pain we did to others at the Nazi time, we committed ourselves to keep high standards for asylum seekers and refugees," she said. "It is even part of our constitution. Having said this, now that so many people come, many people are discussing whether we have to keep the standards. We easily forget where we come from. Christians have to play an active role in explaining why all of us (Germans and foreigners) need a truly human society where strangers are respected and protected."

When asked how United Methodists in other parts of the world can help, Wenner said, "Pray for our country and for Europe.

"We face many tensions, yes, even divisions," she said. "Many people are open to help; others are strongly against the newcomers. There is an increasing fear that they will not integrate, and the tensions between the cultures will be too big. The European governments, as well as the European Union, are becoming more and more restrictive. Some countries send refugees back to Turkey, and many borders are closed. Several church leaders, including myself, are advocates for not giving up our human rights standards; they have to be kept for refugees and asylum seekers. It is a very challenging situation."

For conferences, churches and individuals who want to support the German churches in their ministry with refugees, financial help is appreciated. Some of the very small churches do a lot for the newcomers with limited funds. For example, the church that planted the Arabic congregation has only about 30 professing members.

"Refugees are humans," Wenner said. "We all want to be treated with respect. We all need love. We all want to build up relationships where we give and receive. We have many things in common. We have to create learning environments so we can develop intercultural competency. Our congregations are ‘learning by doing' as people talk to one another and share their experiences."

Polly House is a freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee.