Church communities in the west are currently experiencing the joy and challenge of welcoming, discipling and baptising refugee new believers from a range of Muslim-majority countries. Much of this work feels quite experimental as we respond to need (the refugees’) and the opportunity which God is giving us. Is there wisdom we can draw from writings around ceremony and bonding and the importance of rites of passage? How can the learning here inform our practice and give us greater confidence in what we are doing?
Welcome and Belonging
The state of liminality which asylum seekers and refugees experience is well documented. Waiting for their status, their right to work and the opportunity to move on from being in a stateless position to being granted leave to remain puts them in a hold position between the past and the future. They are separated from homeland and loved ones and the way that the state treats them only serves to pile on the sense of physical and emotional weakening that is a further feature of liminality. Thus, what our new friends are looking for is home/family/belonging. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for the local church to respond to.
The word of God, ever relevant, speaks directly into this situation and, in our church, we have found it helpful to have printed onto a banner the Message version of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:19-20 : ” … You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. ”
Part of our commitment to welcome newcomers in this state of liminality, those looking for a place to put down roots and settle, must be to ensure that our worshipping congregation is accessible and meaningful for those new Believers from a Muslim Background (BMBs) who are joining us in numbers now. This is expressed in a number of ways but in terms of ceremony and rites of passage I think there are two interestingly opposite positions that we have taken. The first is that we have taken baptism much more joyously and baptism preparation much more seriously. The second, and perhaps more challenging for traditionalists, is that we have relaxed any conventions we had on who is “eligible” to take communion. The reasons for this are expanded on below
As a congregations welcoming enquirers and new believers from different cultural and faith backgrounds into our worship, we have had the opportunity to revisi the way that we enact our rituals, and rediscover their value as bridges for others to engage with. In considering how these ancient rituals might be most helpfully practiced today, our exploration uncovers how ritual offers layers of meaning for all concerned, and we are the richer for it.
Baptism: It’s true to say that prior to our welcoming of new arrivals, requests for baptism were rare and preparation for baptism focused more on the procedural than the spiritual. All that has changed as we face the joy and challenge of meeting those expressing a desire to learn what it is to follow Jesus and be baptised. We want to ensure that our friends understand what it means to repent and “turn to Christ”; we explore the costly nature of this shift of allegiance with them and we actively outline ways in which followers of Jesus can entrust themselves to Christ whose authority is superior to persons, objects or practices of power with whom they may have had ties . Then, as their church community we can positively encourage them to “Stand bravely with him against all the powers of evil and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.”  Our partying afterwards, and we do party, is a celebration of the new identity and new life which our friend has stepped into having emerged from the (symbolic) cleansing waters.
Communion: The relaxing of conventions on who is “eligible” to take communion. has been more challenging, perhaps, to traditionalists amongst us. But, we have understood that If the act of communion/breaking of bread together around the Lord’s table is a sign of the kingdom community, the true family which these new comers crave, then this needs to be open to all who are there, even if they are “just looking”. We take seriously the words of the great invitation in Isaiah 55 and remind ourselves of Jesus’ repeated encouragement to “Come and see”. In doing so we have found that being welcomed at the margins has meant for many that they follow an arc where they keep coming, come closer and then experience God for themselves.
But we could do more. In her paper examining the implications of Mary Douglas’ grid-group analysis as a cultural theory , Moyra Dale suggests that “Culture matters. All our human preferences and relations are culturally-shaped.” She then goes on to pose a great question: “ For the sake of the evangel, are we prepared to hold more loosely to some of our most cherished values, such as individual freedom or egalitarianism as we recognize them as being at least as much cultural in origin as Christian? “ 
As westerners who value individualism, and one of the ways this is played out in church is the way we love to be innovative and different in our delivery of aspects of the services. For us, it has the capacity to add interest and to widen engagement. For those unfamiliar with either language or form it must seem very confusing! Although, with time and friends to “interpret”, understanding comes. However, when the innovative approach is extended to the ritual of communion so that sometimes we say this and sometimes we say that, or sometimes we sit around a table and sometimes we come up formally in lines – according to the celebrant’s whim, I wonder whether we need to stop and think again. If this is possibly the only part of the service which, through its repetitive nature and visual symbolism, might be consistently recognized and understood to convey meaning and the possibility of engagement for followers of Jesus, then keeping the ritual of the ritual has new importance.
As we engage with our new brothers and sisters in Christ and begin to form new ties, we, ourselves, are challenged and changed. We all begin to see how the decision to become a follower of Jesus means that we are given the opportunity of taking on a new identity. We experience a profound sense of commitment to each other as we share communion together in thankfulness to Christ who has broken down the dividing wall and made us one. And we rejoice in our growing understanding of God’s purposes being fulfilled as He is forming us, as church, into a new community which more accurately reflects His Kingdom community where national boundaries or ethnicity no longer divide and where all can find a home.
1. ‘Living Liminality’: everyday experiences of asylum seekers in the ‘Direct Provision’ system in Ireland. Zoë O’Reilly https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1473345?journalCode=cgpc20. accessed 8.11.2018
2. Principles outlined in Come follow Me discipleship resource. Tim Green (2017).
4. Douglas, Mary, Natural Symbols, (London: Routledge, 1970, 2nd ed. 1996)
5. The Cultural Shape of Religion: Perspectives on Outrage. Moyra Dale
Featured Image: https://onerefuge.org/2018/07/01/the-journey-begins/
Miriam Williams: Miriam has settled in the UK but has a long experience of cross-cultural living and interaction in a range of contexts. Knowledge gained from these experiences have been brought to bear on her current work and interest in enabling faith conversations between Muslim and Christian women at grass-roots level. She is passionate about seeking to ensure inclusion and accessibility to the things that matter so that transformative spaces are open to all; and sees links here to the way we do discipling.