Some of us are nomadic by nature. We might not live in a tent, but we move to work in a new place, sometimes a new country or even a new continent.
Anyone who has moved to a new neighbourhood will tell you that it involves learning a whole new geography of living—finding where to shop, what schools are best for your kids, deciding on utility companies and fitting yourself into your new home while evaluating what level of neighbourly interaction you want. And that’s before you even begin to consider having to learn a new language and a new culture.
Moving is one of the most stressful events in our lives—especially when you cross continents and cultures. For some of us it’s a privileged choice; for others there are no choices—the move comes out of a desperate need.
People have always been on the move—to explore, to make better lives or to flee in fear. Whether it’s Europeans migrating to Australia or New Zealand, Polynesians sailing into the Pacific or central Asians moving to Alaska. And of course travelling has become easier and faster with time.
When our family moved across the world to New Zealand, it was a choice for us to leave all we knew. Making the decision without having visited the country previously did give me some anxiety, but as I have one of those nomadic hearts and have lived on four continents and worked in six countries, I looked at it as more of an adventure than a source of fear.
And we were welcomed to New Zealand; we were made to feel at home. Within a matter of days I found that my heart resonated with our new country and I merged myself into a new culture. It didn’t take long until I discovered that the rhetoric among politicians and media regarding immigration and refugees was very different to what I had experienced in Europe. There, I’d witnessed growing and quite disturbing anti-immigration attitudes filtering through the fabric of society; such language is not as common here.
This was really evident when, in March this year, 50 people were killed in a house of worship and the nation of New Zealand came together in shock, mourning and solidarity. “They are us” became the repeated response to the tragedy, quoting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In the midst of the shock, there also came recognition that this type of hatred had found fertile ground here. In the aftermath of the terror attack, how we choose to respond will have an effect on healing the country and the people, but will also send a clear message that such hatred is not reflective of the majority of the population.
Visiting the Te Papa national museum in Wellington was an eye-opener for me. The exhibition, Passport, focuses on the people who have migrated to New Zealand in the past 200 years. What struck me was a section of the exhibit that told the stories of the refugees who had come to New Zealand—where they had come from and why. These were refugees who had no hope of remaining in their home country, if their country still existed—people who had left everything behind. Unlike me, they hadn’t had their stuff shipped over in a container; but, like me, they were people who were becoming part of a nation they didn’t grow up in.
They didn’t have the privileges that come from being a pale, blonde European like me. And, unlike a refugee, I don’t know war, I haven’t lived in fear of my life. But we have all come to New Zealand; we have moved into a new community asking, “Will you be my neighbour?”
People of faith are called to love their neighbour, and we do okay with loving people who are like us; we tend to move in circles with people from similar ethnic and social backgrounds. But what happens when someone who doesn’t look like you stands at the door of your community and asks, “Will you be my neighbour?”
One of the challenges for nations today is the volume of people migrating. Even though people migrated to and from these same countries in centuries past, now some governments are closing their doors, saying, “There is no room here.”
We are often told through the media and by our politicians that there is a refugee crisis. But is it really a crisis, or is the problem how we see each other’s humanity? One church in the Netherlands decided to make a difference. According to The New York Times, the Hague-based Bethel Church held an uninterrupted worship service from October 26, 2018 to January 30, 2019, taking advantage of an old law of sanctuary that prevented police from entering the church building to arrest and deport an Armenian asylum-seeking family taking refuge there. Nearly 1000 priests and pastors from various denominations each took their turn at leading the service, while worshippers also came and went. After 96 days of uninterrupted worship, a political compromise was reached and the family was told their deportation would be postponed while their case is reviewed.
It’s easier to distance yourself from the refugee crisis when you haven’t met any refugees, or your family hasn’t fled their homeland, looking for safety. But what if it were you or me? The sobering, stark reality that it could have been me who was rejected at the door doesn’t sit well. I can’t help remembering two well-known sayings of Jesus. First, the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). That’s a principle that challenges me to see the world from the other person’s perspective—to develop empathy. Then Jesus challenges His disciples on caring for each other as if they were caring for Him, their Messiah: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Those are particularly bracing words for me as a Christian: not only am I to imagine myself in the other’s shoes, I am to recognise Jesus in the face of the most disadvantaged—to see them as someone of supreme value and importance.
When we fail to look through history, it’s easy to forget how many of our fellow citizens—or their ancestors—came as refugees from other places, or left their country to be able to feed their family and not fear a war. Exploring Te Papa’s exhibition, I walked down the timeline on the floor detailing when the different refugee groups had been welcomed into New Zealand. As I reached the beginning of the line, I saw that the very first refugee group New Zealand welcomed in 1865, were my people—refugees from Denmark. That hit home . . . hard. How often do I reflect on my heritage and recognise that at one time in history, my people needed to flee to a new country as refugees?
It was a profound realisation. Here I am in a country that opens its doors to people fleeing war and persecution, but I never thought of my people group as refugees—today we are a privileged country. My arrival to New Zealand was from a safe and wealthy nation, but, nevertheless, at one point in history, members of my tribe had stood here and asked, “Will you be my neighbour?”
If I wasn’t northern European, white and blonde, but from a different nation, standing at your border, or moving into your neighborhood, would you welcome me?
Kirsten Oster Lunqvist is an international Dane who has fallen in love with her new home of Wellington, New Zealand. As a pastor and communicator, she enjoys connecting with people.