The Edge is an occasional column in Candour written by people who exercise a ministry outside the usual congregational context. How do things look from the edge?
Friends on the edge – Sharon Ross Ensor
After I stepped away from parish ministry and took up my part-time role with the Presbyterian Church Schools’ Resource Office, I realised that I had time available to spend on volunteer work and made a conscious decision to do something that was outside of my usual church involvement.
So at the end of 2015 I trained to be a Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteer. We were asked for a six month commitment, but I have found myself drawn into something rather special and the involvement with ‘my’ Syrian family, who are now my friends, continues twelve months on.
As I look back on my experience over the last year I recognise some significant moments of grace, learning and growth in my life and faith through our relationship which I want to tell you about.
The family are Sunni Muslim and I have been impressed with the level of devoutness which is constantly in evidence within their home. An example of this was just a couple of days ago when the family’s third child was born. I was invited to be a support person at the birth and when we returned home with their brand new, beautiful daughter, the family gathered around as the grandfather led prayers of blessing over the baby and thanksgiving for a safe delivery. It was a special moment. This and the family’s constant references to their faith in our conversations have drawn me to reflect on my devotion to God in Christ. It has been a significant factor in my commitment to continue to go deeper in developing a contemplative prayer life and other spiritual practices.
My Syrian friends have very little by way of material possessions. Waiting with them to collect their bags at the airport when they first arrived in Wellington, it occurred to me that their one 23kg bag each was all that they had in the world. There was no container full of furniture and possessions arriving in a couple of months. This was the sum total of their possessions and they were reliant on us, their host country, to enable them to rebuild their lives.
What they are lacking in material possessions though, they make up for in hospitality. Tea is always offered when I visit, followed by food, fruit and often big slabs of home-made cake, followed by beautiful strong Turkish coffee (‘New Zealand coffee is rubbish’ says the husband with a grin on his face).
Brian and I have had numerous meals with the family. Delicious, freshly-made Middle Eastern food, which is simply the best! If Brian isn’t there I am always given left-over food to take home ‘for my husband’.
My waistline has expanded, but so has my understanding of what offering hospitality looks like and the mutuality, dignity and joy of both giving to and receiving from others.
Our relationship has also taught me more about compassion.
Soon after arriving in Wellington, I and the others in our little volunteer team, began to be told stories about what had happened to this family in Syria. They carry with them personal experiences of trauma, terror and deep grief at what has been lost, along with stories of injury and death within their family from the civil war. That first week was like opening a door into a new world! A world of harsh realities which we are cushioned from way down here in Aotearoa New Zealand. I was shocked by it and at times moved to tears. All of those reports of Syria I’d seen on TV news from the comfort of my armchair about bombed houses, families on the move, people injured, maimed, killed…it was all here in the story of just this one family. It was confronting and it took some getting used to.
Despite all they have been through my friends retain a delightful sense of humour, an interest in me, my family and friends, and a gutsy determination to get on and make something of this new experience which they neither sought or particularly wanted. They are resilient. They have survived.
They want to thrive in this new country of theirs, but to a great extent their well-being and ability to do that is tied up with their deep concern and distress about the well-being of family who are either trapped in the limbo of a besieged city in Syria, or as refugees in Lebanon. There is as yet no light at the end of the tunnel and it would be easy for them to feel helpless and in despair.
My task, as I see it, is simply to be there for my friends and to stand alongside them as best I can. To recognise that in them, these people who in so many ways are ‘other’ to me, there is the face of Christ. They are fellow human beings, sons and daughters of Sarah and Abraham as I am.
Life has become so much more rich and deep for me because of this volunteering, now friend-growing experience. It is costly for sure, in time, energy and resources, but it is so life-giving and brings to reality the call of Jesus to be a servant to others and the promise that in losing my life I will find it.
I am very grateful.