A welcome to strangers

During my recent visit to the Scots International Church in Rotterdam, I was able to spend a couple of hours at one of their main projects – Mamre. Named after the place in Genesis 18 where Abraham offered hospitality to three strangers, the Mamre project in Rotterdam seeks to offer hospitality and help to asylum seekers and refugees. There are many immigrants in the city who are seeking citizenship, but with no official papers life can be very tough for them. The Mamre project offers a weekly drop-in time and serves free lunches to anyone who wishes to stay.

It’s a time for people to share their story and to meet with others in similar circumstances. It also attracts a number of other people who although not asylum seekers or refugees find themselves in need. Such people are not actively discouraged, but it is made known that the place is, first and foremost, for refugees and asylum seekers.

As an additional ‘service’, the church can offer a ‘poste restante’ address to those who are ‘genuine’ asylum seekers and who are actively pursuing Dutch citizenship. Many finid themselves in temporary accommodation where the mail is unreliable or simply gets stolen. Being allowed to use the church address ensures a safe place for important papers to be sent without fear of them being undelivered or stolen.

So far, so reasonable – a social care project for the disadvantaged. What, I think, makes it interesting is the grey legal area in which it sits. Strictly speaking, many of those who come along are illegal immigrants. It is illegal to encourage or aid them. So where does that place the church?

Interestingly, the project was set up after discussion with many official agencies. What they identified as being the ‘missing’ service for asylum seekers and refugees was a place where such groups could be ‘heard’. Official agencies deal with paperwork and legal issues. They have little time for the person they are dealing with. It was into this ‘gap’ that the church could introduce their service – a place where stories could be listened to; a place where they could be treated as people, not a legal case; a place where they could feel they still ‘existed’ and ‘mattered’.

Legalities aside, the main function of the Mamre project is to treat people in need as humans and to affirm their dignity and worth. It may not be able, or even possible, to meet all of their needs, but the project meets this fundamental need through its belief and understanding that all people are loved by God and that, as Christians, we are to show that love to others, in whatever way we can. Whether it is preparing and cooking food for a crowd, or simply being interested in another’s story, we can contribute.

And, as in Mamre, who knows who we may be offering hospitality to.

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