I was six time zones away from the tragedy, yet I felt the concentric circles of its pain. It was Friday the 13th. Gunmen and bombers had taken to the streets of Paris, attacking citizens at a soccer stadium, a concert hall, and restaurants along the streets. The iconic city known for its quaint cafes and romance seemed as if it should be immune from something like this. Even so, survivors rushed from their seats, out of breath, some with streaks of blood on their foreheads, their eyes open past the irises. At times I had to block my own eyes from the footage.
In the months leading up to that night in 2015, I prayed over the newspaper articles about shell-shocked Syrians who were forced to flee to the mountains and seas with no food in hand. Like many, I wept over reports of a refugee child’s body washed up on a Mediterranean beach. I passionately supported refugee and asylum programs and refused to support political candidates who caricatured people from certain nations or bragged about plans to build walls and cut off immigration.
But when it came up that some of the Paris attackers had visited terrorist organizations in Syria or even posed as Syrian refugees at European ports of entry, I began second-guessing myself. Pain can lead to fear. And fear can begin, almost immediately, to deconstruct our tidy beliefs, those values we stood for in our idealism that hadn’t been fully tested.
On the couch hearing the news, I hugged my knees and squinted from the contradictory thoughts that fought inside my head. Had I been naive to be so open to refugees from this unstable part of the world? What if this were a Trojan horse letting even a few violent fanatics through the gates when our nation had meant to offer and maintain peace at the same time? I did not want to agree with the anti-immigrant and nationalistic rhetoric, but I didn’t want to be a fool in the opposite direction either. I wanted to do something to change the broken world, but was it possible that we just needed to hide from it? I couldn’t believe it—I was starting to wonder if that brash man taking over the mic on the campaign trail might actually have a point.
With my values of compassion and safety now at odds with one another, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t seem to uncurl my body or my hands. It was going to be a long night. I did the only thing I knew to do—I prayed a brokenhearted, fear-laced prayer. I put my face in my hands and sobbed for the victims of the attack. Then, I lobbed my questions at God, “How can we keep welcoming refugees when there’s a risk like this? We can’t let this place become like the war zone that real refugees have fled. But how can we guarantee that all who enter are thoroughly vetted?”
When I finished questioning, I felt an unexplainable shift. One moment, I was a live wire of anxiety and dread. The next moment, it was as if a circuit breaker had flipped. In an instant, a new thought from outside myself turned off every worry and question in my conscious mind. There have been only a handful of times in my life when God has replied in clear, complete sentences, as if he were typing in my head. This was one of them.
“It’s not up to you to vet the refugees,” he said. “It’s up to you to love the ones I send your way.”
I was silent. My tears were gone. A sudden, almost shocking peace settled over me, a peace I had not created. My eyes softened. My body uncurled. Things felt strangely simple.
“Okay,” I answered, wiping my eyes, “I can do that.”
Three weeks from that Friday, at a Christmas candlelight dinner at church, I introduced myself to a visitor. When she replied, I recognized her accent from a summer spent in Cairo many years before. She slid her small cross emblem along the gold chain of her necklace. On her wrist she bore the tattoo of the Coptic Orthodox Christians who’ve long been a persecuted group in Egypt.
She described her work as an Arabic interpreter for the local school system, and before I knew it, she began telling me about a Syrian family who had recently enrolled their teens at the middle school. They had arrived just a few weeks earlier from a refugee camp, and after settling in to their first place, had to suddenly change apartments due to an infestation. “They have nothing,” she said.
Soon, we teamed up to take clothes, furniture, grocery cards, and other essentials to the family. We sat together with cups of gritty Arabic coffee in hand and dabbed at our tears as Rahma told the story of her bombed-out apartment in Syria, the way her sons were hit in the face with rocks by the citizens of the country where they first fled for safety, and the relief she and her family felt in their new home even though they had to learn a whole new language and culture. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you for being here with me.”
I felt unsure of visiting without an interpreter, but Rahma and I found facial expressions and tears to be our shared language. In her limited English and my very limited Arabic, we grieved continued news of bombings in Syria. Once, we watched the video of Omran, a preschool-aged boy pulled from the rubble of an apartment building. Covered in dust, he sat in the back of an ambulance and stared straight ahead, too stunned to even cry. We cried for him.
The next November, two days before the 2016 election, a Lebanese seminary leader visited my church to speak about what God was doing through the refugee crisis in his country. As a religious minority, Christians in Lebanon had long been turned inward, functioning from a bounded-set mentality, which relies on protective boundary lines of belief, behavior, or even appearance to define who is in and who is out, who belongs and who does not. That mindset sees the local church like a club, or worse, like a bunker. But having received the highest per capita influx of Syrian refugees of any nation in the world, Lebanon could not remain unchanged, and neither could the Church.
With the real people of the humanitarian crisis showing up in their neighborhoods, the Church in Lebanon began to unclench its hands and open wide its arms to become a centered-set community, less worried about the circle’s circumference and more devoted to the center of it all—Jesus. Believers released themselves from guarding boundary lines and welcomed newcomers into an increasingly hospitable community, allowing them freedom to draw closer to the center and become familiar with Jesus for themselves. God has used this crisis to root out fear and revive his people.
Lebanese-American minister Robert Hamd said, “Christians anywhere in the world who are advocating for the barricade mentality only cut themselves off of the life-giving Spirit, creating alienation in all of life.” Like any emotion, fear can be a signal that something needs to be addressed, but if we’re stuck in it, it has lost its usefulness. After I came to God overwhelmed about immigration issues and received his confidence, compassion, and calm in return, I’ve looked at fear differently. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” If God has not given us a spirit of fear and we’re taken captive by fear, that means we’re settling for someone else’s plan for us and the world. Fear backs us further and further behind our self-preserving barricades. In contrast, life in God’s Spirit is marked by power, not a braggadocious authority-wielding power, but the God-given strength and ability to face a problem. Life in God’s Spirit is marked by love, a benevolent, mutual affection and good-will toward our fellow citizens of the world. Life in God’s Spirit is marked by a sound mind, a calm, level-headed wisdom. If I’m not seeing this kind of evidence, I know I need to check the messages I’m hearing and re-center on Jesus.
I could smell the coriander, cumin, and cardamom as soon as the door opened. My kids and I had dropped by to spend time with Rahma and her teenagers after school. In true Middle Eastern style, afternoon snack had somehow turned into a feast of pita, kebab, tabouli, and baklava. Rahma kissed our cheeks and welcomed us in. We slipped off our shoes and she ushered us toward the table. The news played in the background as we gathered around to eat. Rahma wrung her hands and shook her head. When her teens asked me what I thought of the rhetoric, I shared what God had taught me about power, love, and a sound mind. Rahma sighed and smiled softly. She cut a round of pita bread into triangles and added them to my plate.
In the days of the early Church, followers of Jesus prepared gatherings called agape feasts or love feasts, meals where the poor and rich fellowshipped together in mutual love and service. Though my faith background differs from Rahma’s, I like to think of my time around her table as something akin to that. I believe our paths have met so that both she and I can grow in recognizing God’s tender and trustworthy movement in our lives, find deep and lasting peace, and enjoy sweet friendship. Since that encounter five years ago, God has made it clear that I’m not here to be controlled by fear. I’m not here to fix the world or to hide from it. I’m here to love and be loved by the people he sends my way.
*name changed for privacy