Mass migration is a concern for many countries today: it is part of both the history and the present of Anabaptist-Mennonites. We have been both those who are migrating and those who are welcoming neighbours to a new home. At Justice on the Journey: Migration and the AnabaptistMennonite Story in San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica, 6 April 2019, presenters from around the world gave testimonies of migration.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, [they] shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33–34).
The text used in the World Fellowship Sunday material 2019 speaks of treating strangers the same as native born. It also reminds us to not forget the times we were strangers in another country.
To be a foreigner and to welcome foreigners into my world seem like two sides of the same coin.
Sometimes we are on one side, sometimes on the other.
My own life story shows both these aspects.
I came to Germany as a foreigner. I was still a child, but I have never forgotten how it felt to enter a new world.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “For I was a stranger and you invited me in” (vs. 25–35). This passage became reality in my life.
When I was 10 years old, my family emigrated from Russia to Germany. My parents, who had been German refugees of war in Russia, spoke German with each other. But for me, German was a foreign language.
I remember well my first day of school in Germany. My classmates tried to communicate with me using their hands and feet.
We were about to attend a religious education class. In Germany, children have the choice of attending either Catholic or Lutheran lessons.
My classmates asked me: Are you Catholic or Lutheran? I did not know how to answer; I was Mennonite!
We needed a solution to the problem, so they asked me: How do you pray at home -- like this or like this?
I showed them how we pray, and they decided that I was to go to the Lutheran class.
In Sunday school, I became friends with a German girl. She came to visit; she invited me over. I felt strange in the new surroundings, but she did not shy away in spite my reservations. Our relationship grew and we remain friends, even today.
Many years later, one winter day, one of my classmates said: This is such a cold day – it is as cold as Siberia. I replied, “I think Siberia is a bit colder.” As if you would know. “I do! I was born there.” No way.
I had to show her my passport as proof.
On that day, I realized that I was a stranger only in my own head. I had stopped being a stranger to the others a long time ago. This realization changed my life.
I learned that to belong is a two-way street. Whether I belong or not does not only depend on the others who need to accept me, it also depends on me – whether I accept the invitation.
I was a stranger – but you have welcomed me.
Three years ago, on a cold and grey January weekend, a workshop brought excitement to people of our church. We learned how to make beautiful new blankets – comforters – from old pieces of fabric.
This excitement is still running high. Four times a month, a group of women – church members, neighbours and refugees – meets in our church to cut, create patterns, sew, knot and make comforters.
The blankets bring colour into our life.
It is fun to be creative and experience community at the same time.
It is work that makes sense, because we can help others with our work. MCC and the European relief organisations distribute the blankets to refugee camps in Syria and Greece to people who receive warmth, colour and love.
Yes, love. It might be easier and cheaper to buy blankets, but those blankets would not include love.
There is love in every square of our work. When we cut the fabric, create patterns and knot, we think about the people who will receive the blankets. We are interested in their lives; we follow their stories. And this love is included when the blankets are distributed.
The blankets bring colour into refugee camps. And they also bring colour into lives of refugees in Germany who have joined our group. They can do something for their friends who are still looking for a place of refuge. At the same time, they make new friends in their new home country, practise the language and share their own stories.
When we reach out to each other in all our diversity and love and persist in building relationships, we will experience change in ourselves and in others. Strangers will become friends.
On both sides, we need courage to overcome the grey of the unknown and learn to know the colours of the other. We can give and receive a colourful life.
And I am certain that in the same way God is inviting us to enter in a relationship and get to know God’s colourful life!
*Title comes from a poem by Ingrid Ellerbrock, “Grau muss nicht grau bleiben”
—Liesa Unger is Chief International Events Officer for Mennonite World Conference and pastor of Mennonitengemeinde Regensburg in Germany. She spoke at Renewal 2027 – Justice on the journey: Migration and the Anabaptist story – in San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica, 6 April 2019. This paper been adapted from her presentation.
This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2019.