Crossing the border from Macedonia into Greece, Idomeni begins long before the iconic location that is now the Greek geo-political point of the refugee crisis. This tortured reality is more than tents, more than 15,000 trapped people, more than the rampant sickness borne under horrific conditions. From a razor-wire fence that slashes the face of Europe, Idomeni is who we are becoming when fear builds walls and trumps love.
May God have mercy on all of us.
THE WORLD OF TRANSPORT
Idomeni begins on a train track that is still active. Quite ironically, a train with ‘Gartner. The world of transport.’ sits idly in the midst of a few tents that wind and grow into a random array of dome-shaped color like colorful mushrooms in a terrifying forest. Some are on pavement, some on ground, some have been founded on wood slats or insulated with hay.
One of two food tents is manned by 20 volunteers who peel potatoes in a frenzied effort to bring sustenance to 15,000 mouths. A line is forming for the soup that the potatoes produce. At some points along the winding path, women hover over small fires cooking onions and potatoes for their own meals. It is a laborious process. Their cooking pots are metal tins rummaged from the trash that once held some other food, now re-purposed to feed a family. Women smile and offer to give us a taste. A little Syrian boy of 10 walks with us to practice his English. He offers a candy from his pocket in a gesture of hospitality. More times that we wish to count, we are offered crackers, tea, candies from the meager supply of a hungering humanity.
OUR FEAR SPEAKS
Nearing the center of the camp, chanting reaches our ears and a line of Greek police in riot gear face the protesters. There is no violence yet, but the voice of Idomeni is crying to be heard. There are points along this path that call us to clarity. ‘F**K your racist borders’. It is here that we search our souls and ask – Is it our fear that has created Idomeni?
If our answer is yes, then just 70 meters ahead, lies the reality of who we are becoming. That would be our face reflected there in razor-wire. This fence, this wall, this metal that cuts to the soul triumphantly declares who deserves freedom and who returns to war. When we build walls from fear, Idomeni is Me and Idomeni is You.
We belong. You do not.
We deserve. You do not.
That fence is rooted in and birthed out of our fears. That is Idomeni.
As if God knows just how prone we are to fear. As if God knows how fear silences and bullies and strangles love. As if God knows how fear can steal our identity. As if God knows about Idomeni:
‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.’
And it is a commandment for a reason – so that all men will know that your identity is in Christ – you are a Jesus follower.
To be a follower is to submit ourselves to and to be discipled by a Middle-Eastern man named Jesus, the Son of God born of the Virgin Mary, whose culture informed and formed how He saw the world. It is the culture that He lived and breathed and it is founded on a deep ethos of love and hospitality.
In the Middle East, hospitality not only welcomes but serves.
In the Middle East, love is an action, not words.
In our Book, the Jesus-way of love is an action. Look at the God-man on the cross.
Now, look at Idomeni.
When fear trumps love, we build a wall.
When fear trumps love, we demonize a people.
When fear trumps love, we value our own lives and live in warmth and plenty and lay our heads down in peace to sleep while 15,000 people with newborns and toddlers, and teens sit in hell.
In Idomeni, you stand in line for hours to get food.
In Idomeni, the rains come and it soaks into your cold bones and it soaks inside your tent and nobody is dry or warm.
In Idomeni, your newborn exits the warmth of your womb and gets washed in ice cold water.
In Idomeni, your cough worsens and your body shakes.
In Idomeni, there is nothing to do but wait.
In Idomeni, you think of the children that you have lost on the way and there is no way to find them or rescue them.
Idomeni is a living, breathing representation of what fear can create when it trumps love.
‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’ from I John 4:18
MORE THAN TERRORISTS
On the rain-soaked path, we meet a man name Muhammad. On each side are a boy and a girl of elementary age. The protection and love afforded these two children is as visible as the rain-soaked, mud-laden shoes Muhammad wears.
This man is a doctor who has finished all the necessary steps of training to be a pediatric oncologist, but lacks a diploma. The war stripped him of the opportunity to wait to receive that.
‘What are the names of your children?’
‘They are not my children,’ he replies, pulling his arm tighter around them. ‘They are the children of my best friend, who was killed by a bomb in the square. They and their mother are my responsibility now. When we fled Syria, we brought them with us.’
We ask about the ‘we’ to whom he refers. A smile comes to his eyes. ‘My wife and I. She is 5 months pregnant with our first child.’
The reality of this crisis is that Muhammad will deliver his own child in the squalor of Idomeni and the rhetoric of fear is a narrative that makes that feel justifiable to us.
This narrative casts refugees into the role of aggressive terrorists, demonizes every Muhammad into a category, and creates a scenario of Us verses Them that all too often ends with this statement; ‘I must protect my family.’ But, in Idomeni, we find a counter-narrative that is the story of a people who have chosen to place their hope in western, even ‘christian’ nations. They have run from war, bombs, and death believing that they would be received with hospitality for the hope of their family.
God is love. This is what we have been proclaiming, is it not? These are the words that we have been preaching and singing and praying: God is love. And we have boldly stated to the world that WE are HIS people. We are Jesus-people.
So, here in the midst of Idomeni and 15,000 souls from the Middle East, the question really is – do we, the Church, truly believe that God is love? Not a cliche. Not a nice song to sing. Not a Santa in heaven that gives us what we want.
Not a God of love only for us.
Do we believe God is love and that His Word is equally true for every corner of our globe, for every ethnicity, for every skin color, and every language?
Where His people are, there the Church must actively live into a story. That powerful story is life triumphant over death and it is rooted in love. That story silences our fear and gives us courage to speak up for the foreigner amongst us. We must be a sanctuary to those who need refuge. We must find a way to help governments and politicians hear that there is a better way than a razor-wire fence.
Because the alternative is? God have mercy … the alternative when fear trumps love? It is Idomeni.