Migrant prophets teach care for those on the margins

Kenya, over the last several years, has been a flashpoint for Christian-Muslim conflict in East Africa, with the militant group al-Shabab’s lethal attacks in Nairobi, Garissa, and elsewhere. With each incident of terror the tension increases.

But Kenyan Mennonites are finding hope in small incidents of transformation. A major part of the challenge is that Kenya has received waves of refugees from Somalia over the last quarter century. Many of these people land in the largest refugee camp in the world (Dadaab) – or in the Eastleigh neighbourhood of Nairobi. There, at the Mennonite-initiated Eastleigh Fellowship Center, Christians and Muslims interact in many different ways.

Yusuf, a Kenyan Mennonite who teaches English in Eastleigh, has regular discussions about faith with young Somali men in the neighbourhood. One day, one of his conversation partners became very angry and slapped him hard across the face.

“I prayed to God that I would not be angry,” Yusuf says. “And I just continued the discussion.

“Later, the other guys who were there came to me to say that they were sorry, and that they were surprised that I was not fighting. I said to them, ‘You don’t know how much Christ has forgiven me, and he called us to forgive.’

“It became clear to me at that point that peace is the best witness,” Yusuf says. “And from that time my relationship changed with those men.”

A woman who pastors a Mennonite church in Eastleigh confesses how hard it is to stay when so many other churches have left the area. There was a series of bombings in 2014, and tension can be very high at times.

But she worked for many years in Eastleigh, teaching at the fellowship centre and helping young Somalis with immigration issues. Now those Somalis have children of their own and bring them to the centre, and they still refer to her as “Mama Rebecca.”

There is hope that these sorts of transformative relationships are spreading, even as violent incidents dominate the news.

Occasionally the fruit of these loving friendships blossoms in astonishing ways. One such incident occurred when al-Shabaab militants stopped a bus in northern Kenya, and ordered the Muslims and Christians to separate. The passengers refused. The Muslim passengers protected their Christian neighbours, and one Muslim man even lost his life in the attack.

This new paradigm for neighbourliness reflects the best in both faith traditions – to love and obey God, and to love and protect one’s neighbour.

Migrant prophets

This new paradigm of neighbourliness, which is ultimately a practice of welcoming strangers – refugees, displaced persons, immigrants – may be one of the most important interfaith issues in our world. Welcoming vulnerable strangers is one of the deepest commonalities we share as Muslims and Christians.

Central to our faiths are two prophets – Jesus and Muhammad – who were both displaced people. To these we might also add the prophet Moses, who was a castaway as a result of genocide.

We can notice three things about Jesus and welcoming strangers.

First, Jesus was born into a covenant that was revealed in the context of migration, beginning with the prophet Abraham and climaxing in the central event of the Old Testament, the Exodus from slavery.

According to the Bible, immigration is a covenant between God and humans. This covenant was a gift and a responsibility; it reflected God’s goodness to them but also called them to respond to strangers in the same way that God responded to them in their slavery: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Second, Jesus was himself a refugee, fleeing from a murderous king into the land of Egypt. What a stunning reversal of the Exodus story! The land that held the children of Israel in slavery for 400 years became the land that received the vulnerable refugee Jesus the Messiah. 

Third, Jesus’ experience as a refugee surely impacted his view of the world. As someone who had been an outsider and a stranger, he spent his life challenging the divisions that kept people on the outside.

In his life and ministry, Jesus went beyond borders of all sorts – clean/unclean, saints and sinners, rich and poor. Jesus’ life was about calling into being a community of generosity that would reflect God’s unlimited love for all people.

This central teaching of Jesus is captured well in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (vs. 35–36). Jesus fulfills the original calling on God’s people, to follow God’s example as deliverer and provider for our fellow humans. 

Prophet Muhammad, an orphan, joined a long line of prophets whose obedience to God resulted in hijra, the qur’anic term for migration. He identified as a migrant, saying that he is like a traveller who stays for a short time to rest under the shade of a tree and then continues on his journey.

The Qur’an speaks on behalf of the oppressed and weak people on earth, saying, “Was not the earth of God spacious enough for you to flee for refuge?” (4:97). In other words, God owns the land, and those who have authority should take care of refugees.

In the sixth year of the Muhammad’s prophethood, he sent 83 members of his community to find refuge from the Meccans in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). When the Meccans asked King Negus to deliver the migrants over to them, the king protected the Muslim immigrants. His kindness is praised in several qur’anic verses. This incident is an important example of mutual love between Muslims and Christians.

Our central prophets – Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad – were displaced persons. Our Scriptures tell us of God’s special concern for people who have been marginalized. We must recognize that caring for immigrants is central to living out our faith.

—Peter Sensenig, along with his spouse Christy and two children, works with Mennonite Board in Eastern Africa in a majority-Muslim area of Tanzania, teaching peace studies in an interfaith centre at a university. He also has the opportunity to take part in Muslim-Christian dialogues in different parts of the East Africa. The above reflections emerge from such dialogues.

This testimony is part of the Peace Sunday worship resource for 2018. Click here to see more: www.mwc-cmm.org/peacesunday