CHRISTIAN LIVING | Tess Holgate
Refugee advocate Jarrod McKenna has hosted refugees in his home since 2004, and now runs First Home Project with his wife Teresa, a live-in residential community aimed at giving refugees a rental history of their own.
Jarrod says, “there are so many highlights of living with refugees. I love how much my prayer life has been transformed. Having friends who come to Christ and the cultural sensitivities of so many different cultures being brought together. We are of one spirit, one body, one baptism, and that is incredible.”
And the delights of living with refugees also extend beyond the individual.
“We Aussies are actually pretty bad at doing real community,” says Jarrod. “We’re very isolated and living with people from collectivist cultures, you actually start to realise how much we’ve got to learn about hospitality. It’s a huge blessing to learn the generosity of these different cultures.”
But while living with refugees can be wonderful, it can also be just as difficult as living with any other human being.
“These people are as amazing and fascinating and problematic and annoying and delightful as the rest of us,” says Jarrod.
When it comes to navigating difficult tensions, Jarrod is adamant that it’s not more complicated than resolving conflict within a local church congregation, and that many tensions are the product of a clash of cultures.
Jarrod is happy to admit that he’s made his fair share of cultural faux pas over the years, including telling one Afghan friend at an evening event with around 100 people that if everyone took a little less food then there’d be enough to go around.
As Jarrod tells, it, “I didn’t realise just how offensive that was, because in their culture the host would literally fast from eating before ever saying to a guest ‘there isn’t enough’. It took me three weeks to find out he’d been avoiding me because he was so offended, and [he] didn’t know how we could be friends.”
In light of the government’s announcement that we will welcome 12,000 Syrian refugees, Jarrod has two basic principles that might help inform how we go about loving them.
First, be quick to listen and slow to speak (and slow to offer used business shirts that are one size too big). “What [refugees] need is for people to actually come alongside and listen in such ways that we can do unto others as we would want them to do unto us if we were seeking safety ourselves. What people need is actually to express their needs. The importance of friendship is critical. We don’t want the church to be in a position where out of good intentions, because we have no cultural sensitivity, we humiliate those who are already in such a vulnerable situation.”
And second, never ask them their story. “No one on a Sunday morning, no pastor or minister, would ask anybody to turn to the person next to you and share the most painful experience of your life, because that’s inappropriate. That’s horrific. You can’t just demand of people that they [tell you that]. And yet when working with people who are seeking safety, there’s this morbid curiosity where people are like, ‘tell me, why are you a refugee?’”
Jarrod says that having refugees in your home is not for everyone, but if you are consistently interested in loving vulnerable people, you might be ready to prayerfully consider if God could use you to love refugees in this way.