Barbara Swanson is a Covenant missionary in Sweden.
It was a hot summer afternoon during Ramadan when I first met Bea.* I was with a missions team—a group of young people from Salem Covenant Church in Duluth, Minnesota—and we had just spent an afternoon at the local refugee center where I volunteer in Antwerp, Belgium. That day we played games, did crafts, and shared the story of the Good Samaritan with the children and their families. When we left the center, we prayed that the story would go with us and that God would keep our eyes open to those in need.
We had walked about a mile when we saw a woman wearing a veil coming in our direction. She was carrying two large suitcases, and in the heat of that afternoon she looked weary and confused. As we approached her, I greeted her in Dutch. She replied in English and asked if we knew where the refugee center was and if she was close enough to continue walking. She had directions to the center—the very one we had left—but they were written in Dutch, a language she didn’t understand. I encouraged her to stay and rest and asked the group from Duluth to stay with her while I got our car. We were able to drive Bea to the center and get her checked in at the front desk.
As a volunteer at the center, which is run by the government, I am involved in helping children with their homework, holding conversation classes for adults, and accompanying teens who are often in Belgium without their families. During the school year I am involved in a Thursday afternoon women’s club with members of my church. Through cooking and other creative activities, we build bridges of friendship with women and their families. Our motto is “Leave your stress at the door and come in for the fun.” When the women move out of the center, I visit them in their homes and invite them to our home to continue to build the bridge of friendship.
After we dropped Bea off at the center, I lost track of her—I hadn’t thought to ask for her phone number. Imagine my pure delight when our Thursday afternoon club started up in the fall, and there was Bea, looking refreshed and relaxed. Arab women don’t usually give hugs—the traditional greeting is four kisses back and forth on the cheek. But when Bea saw me, she gave me a huge hug. It actually caught me off guard. And since she’s short, and we were in this massive hug, it felt like she was just melting into my arms. I was reminded how lonely so many people in my world are. Bea is a widow with no children and is here in Belgium all on her own. We embraced as though we were old school girlfriends.
There are many Beas in each of our lives: women wearing veils, washing themselves physically as they prepare to pray, seeking truth, seeking peace. The wave of immigrants and refugees that has hit Europe is full of Beas. Here in Belgium, a small country that only processes 16,000 applications annually, immigration authorities are processing 1,900 applications for asylum every week. The numbers are staggering, perhaps even overwhelming, and for many people, these numbers create fear.
I often have to remind myself to get over the numbers—get over my sense of being overwhelmed and afraid—and to remember it all comes down to the number “one.” We are to respond to the need of the one God has placed in our path (literally, in Bea’s case), and let God take care of the big numbers. He’s really good at that! God cares about the ones he is bringing to Europe. He knows the number of hairs on every one of their heads (Matthew 10:30), and he wipes away every tear they shed (Psalm 56:8).
These words of comfort from the Psalms and Matthew are ones I can share with my Muslim friends. We have shared many tears together as they describe losing everything in their homeland, leaving family and a life that disappeared long ago, crossing the sea in unsafe boats, and then walking hundreds of miles to arrive on our path here in Belgium. I am reminded that God is on the move with his people who are on the move.
Bea eventually got permission to stay in Belgium and moved into an apartment. I had regular phone contact with her for several months, and we both kept planning a time when we could see each other again. True to Arabic culture, when I suggested that I come for a visit and asked if I could bring along my friends who were visiting from Germany, Bea said, “Of course, you come, bring your friends!” We hopped on the train and two hours later, there she was, waiting for us at the train station to accompany us on our journey to her home.
Bea was our local tour guide, making sure to point out important sites in the neighborhood—the local mosque, the Catholic church, the shop where she buys her halal meat. We then proceeded to enjoy the best afternoon together, enjoying her Arabic cuisine, drinking a special tea made from dried lemons from her homeland, and listening to her stories about her life before she came to Belgium.
And then I asked, “Bea, what do you know about Jesus?” This was the surprise question for my German friends! “You’re going to talk about Jesus? But, Barb, she’s wearing a veil.” In response, Bea’s face lit up as she talked about Jesus being such a kind man who always comes to her in her dreams, dressed in white and radiating light. And here’s the best part: Bea told us, “With Jesus, I am always so happy and at peace.”
*Bea’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Used with permission of the Covenant Companion.
Originally published as part of the March 2016 Serve Globally newsletter.
Leave a Reply