Article

Tim Stafford


Cities of Refuge

The migrant crisis.

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Nevertheless, she adds: "Most of the discussion about refugees is what they will do for the economy. I think as a Christian that is the wrong question. How can we say to them, I must live in comfort, so you can't?"

Beyond a doubt, Germany is crucial to the refugee crisis. So long as Germans follow Angela Merkel's lead, and so long as refugees don't become alienated and hostile, a difficult situation can be managed. Germans have great faith in their bureaucracy, that it can digest anything if given time. There has been no repeat of Cologne. No one has seen roving bands of Arab youths looking to assault German women. As to terrorist threats, with or without refugees these remain serious problems.

Osijek, Croatia: Biljana Nikolic and her husband, Djena, are Roma Christians who are aiding refugees.
Image: Gary Gnidovic

Osijek, Croatia: Biljana Nikolic and her husband, Djena, are Roma Christians who are aiding refugees.

But what happens if Germany closes its borders to refugees? Already passports are being checked between Munich and Salzburg, Austria, much to the annoyance of locals who have grown used to whizzing across the border.

In Austria I meet Gordy Beck, an American fluent in Farsi. For the past eight years Beck has worked with refugees through the Salzburg Baptist Church. He tells me that before last summer's surge, Austria saw 15,000 refugees a year. In 2015, 90,000 came and stayed; another 690,000 passed through on their way to Germany or Sweden. For its population size, Austria took in more refugees than Germany. Nevertheless, the huge number of refugees passing through took on a much larger prominence. The Salzburg train station became a refugee camp.

I attend a meeting of 19 Salzburg church leaders, in which they share what they are doing with refugees. A common theme is offering German lessons and sharing food and clothing. A number of churches offered Christmas parties—an opportunity to share Austrian culture while also introducing a gospel message. Churches offer help negotiating practical concerns like visits to officials.

They all want to help, and many are anxious to share their faith. Some churches report a significant interest among refugees in Bible studies. They mention that refugees openly ask questions about Christianity, and that some actively seek a new faith. Consistently, the church leaders express the belief that the situation demands a Christian response. "We can't do business as usual," says one pastor, Martin Heidenreich. "God is doing amazing things."

Bernd Wustl pastors a church of 500 in the German border town of Freilassing. He is a Teddy bear with a full white beard, who worked as an engineer for a local manufacturer before he joined fulltime pastoring at the age of 47. He says that ten years ago his church sensed God directing them to pray on the bridge that links Germany to Austria—the same crossing that Napoleon took to conquer Austria, and that Hitler followed in the Austrian Anschluss. The church held several open-air Sunday services at the bridge over the course of two years, but they never understood why they were praying.

Then in April of 2015 the refugees began to cross that bridge by the tens of thousands. Wustl's church decided to call a conference for all the local churches. "There was an unreal fear. What's happened with Germany? [At the conference] we taught people how to handle fear, so they could be freed for ministry."

The German church has two choices, Wustl tells me. "Either we wake up, open our doors and speak the gospel. Or we close doors, and forget about the German church."

The refugee crisis is a big challenge for Germany, he acknowledges.

"It will cost a lot of money. We need to find a lot of teachers. We are getting a lot of single males. I don't know how it is going to go in the future.

"If you ask me if I have a vision for the future, I say no. But I have a vision for what we should do now."

No refugee wants to get stuck in Eastern Europe or Greece. Their economies are weak; jobs are scare. Since the initial chaos of summer and early fall of 2015, these countries have either closed their borders or become refugee pipelines, adept at moving refugees through to Germany as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Croatians emphasize that they have a natural sense of empathy for the refugees, since they themselves were refugees in the 1990s, when war engulfed their country. It is a theme I hear often, from Germans who remember World War II, from Croatians and Serbians who remember the 1990s conflict, from Greeks who grew up hearing stories about hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey in 1922.

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