[This post originally appeared on the Episcopal Divinity School website.]
This week, The Rev. Dr. Susanna Snyder’s book, Asylum-Seeking, Migration and Church, was released by Ashgate Publishing in their series, Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology. We caught up with Professor Snyder to ask her a few questions about her new book.
1) What inspired you to write Asylum-Seeking, Migration and Church?
When I was training for ordination in Birmingham in 2004, I started to volunteer with church-based organizations supporting asylum seekers. As a result of the UK government’s asylum seeker dispersal program, many newcomers were being housed in Birmingham while they waited for decisions on their cases. Churches were offering considerable practical and spiritual support and I was both impressed and intrigued. I wondered: why are they so engaged with migrants and are they—are we—doing a good job? Perhaps even more importantly, I started getting to know a few people who were seeking refuge, a number of whom have allowed me to share their stories in the book. The book was inspired by and is written for them—for Annette, Hassan, Fatima—people who have experienced pain and joy, shown extraordinary courage, and offered me friendship.
2) What are a couple of the misconceptions that you see in the church in relation to migrants?
Sometimes, congregations that are welcoming to immigrants and refugees see migrants as ‘other’ as if they are the hosts and the migrants are the guests. Or in other words, in a well-meaning way, ‘we’ want the help ‘them’. This falls into the trap of assuming that migrants aren’t part of the church—of the ‘us’—and can lead to paternalism or an inability to stand with and learn from newcomers rather than just doing things for them. Other misconceptions include beliefs that migrants have little education or that they are largely non-Christian or more particularly, Muslim. Whereas, in reality, according to a recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 74% of foreign-born people in the US are Christian. Christians who are fearful of immigrants and call for more stringent border controls miss, I think, the opportunities and gifts that migrants can bring to national culture, local society, and faith communities.
3) One of the major parts of the book is called “Encountering ‘Strangers’ in the Bible.” How does the bible look at ‘strangers’ in its pages?
When you’re listening to Christians talk about immigration, one of the phrases you often hear is ‘the biblical attitude to strangers is…’ As soon as you start to flick through the pages of the bible, though, you start to realize there is no such thing. Yes, the idea that the people of God are strangers or outsiders is a central theme or thread: in the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel are grappling with exodus and exile and in the New Testament, Jesus and his followers found themselves on the outside of both the Roman and Jewish norms of their day. But, there is little agreement on how these strangers are to treat other outsiders. On one page, outsiders are to be feared and resisted. On the next, they are to be shown hospitality and revered as bearers of the divine. And you can’t just divide this up into Hebrew Bible as hostile and New Testament as welcoming. It is much more complex than that. What the Bible offers is an extended conversation around engagement with strangers—those as yet unknown to us—a conversation into which readers are invited. If we delve into the texts deeply, the bible offers us both ways of understanding those who are hostile to migrants—we get glimpses into the reasons for their fears—and also creative and persuasive calls to welcome all those who are new or different as people who may bring divine insight and gift.
4) How does the notion of being a welcoming congregation connect to these issues?
There are numerous calls to show hospitality to strangers in the Christian tradition, from commandments in Leviticus through to stories in the gospels showing Jesus’ concern for those on the outside. Welcoming congregations welcome immigrants, and particularly those who experience vulnerability for economic, linguistic, or political reasons. This said, I think we also need to turn ourselves inside out: it is not just about accepting people into our already-defined place. We need to be willing to be changed and to look much more broadly at interconnected political, social, economic, and religious issues. For example, how might we reach out beyond our walls and faith traditions? Are we willing to be challenged and transformed by those who we extend hospitality to? How are we tackling issues of global poverty, economic inequality, and violence that precipitate the movement of many people across borders?
5) How might churches learn from your book and are there practices that you suggest they adopt?
I hope that the book will generate some new conversation and ideas within and between church and other faith communities, as well contribute to a new imagination around migration and asylum. While it is not designed to provide a detailed ‘how to do it’ guide, as if every congregation or faith-based organization is going to have the same experience or be called to respond in the same ways, I do suggest a few ways forward including partnering, increasing our expertise, and engaging with hostility towards immigrants rather than ignoring or dismissing it. I hope that readers will take away two things. First, that churches are engaging in impressive, meaningful, and sometimes life-saving ways with migrants and we should affirm and celebrate these actions. And secondly, that we continue to develop ways of talking about ‘us’—immigrants and members of established populations together—rather than about ‘we’ as hosts and ‘them’ as newcomers.
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Snyder is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Society and Christian Ethics, at Episcopal Divinity School. She holds an MA from the University of Cambridge, a BA from the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, and a PhD from the University of Birmingham.