Mark Russell: Never forget Jesus was born a refugee

A girl cries as she waits on a bus which will transport her family to the metro station, after their arrival from the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos to the Athens' port of Piraeus.
A girl cries as she waits on a bus which will transport her family to the metro station, after their arrival from the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos to the Athens' port of Piraeus.
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IT’S Boxing Day and Christmas is done and dusted for another year.

Endless hours wandering around shopping malls, looking for inspiration of what to buy everyone this year then trying to work out how to wrap that odd-shaped gift.

Watching people push their trolley around the supermarket as if the shops were closed for a fortnight rather than just a day.

The stress levels of expectation to buy the perfect Christmas gifts, cook the perfect Christmas lunch, to have the best Christmas ever.

In all this stress, it’s easy to overlook those who find Christmas a painful time. Those who need a food bank to feed their families, those who haven’t got the money to buy the gifts they want to buy, those who will be terrified to open the credit card statement in January, those who are lonely and have no one to talk to.

Age Concern estimate that one million elderly people have only their TV for company this Christmas.

The Christmas story of Mary and Joseph has been sanitized by nativity plays so we think we know the story. Yet there are sides to the Christmas story that we prefer to look away from, because we might have to face the implications of what it says to us today.

Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and the hotels were full, there were no rooms anywhere, so Jesus was born in a manger. We always seem to make this look cute and sweet on Christmas cards and in school nativity plays, but the harsh reality was Mary gave birth in a disgusting, smelly animal shelter. It would have been cold, dark, unhygienic and totally horrendous. Jesus was born homeless, he was born a rough sleeper.

Across this nation, homelessness is rising. Rough sleeping has doubled since 2010 and is projected to rise further. A homeless person is 13 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime and 47 times more likely to be a victim of theft.

On average, a homeless person’s life expectancy is only 47 when the rest of us can expect to live into our 80s. Homeless people are 35 times more likely to die by suicide, and yet our government has cut the support available to charities like mine who can help support homeless people.

I live in Sheffield and I am conscious that there are more people begging on the streets. Our team staff homeless projects across the nation, and homeless people always tell me the worst thing is being ignored when people walk past on the other side.

I try to take time to stop and say ‘hello’ and help when I can. Walking past a homeless person just makes them feel worthless, ignored and insignificant. Most British people are three pay cheques away from homelessness.

Without savings or a support network, most of us couldn’t survive three months without our income. This Christmas, could you consciously speak to those you see sitting on the streets, buy them a coffee, offer them a friendly word?

King Herod was on the throne when Jesus was born, and he had heard from the Wise Men about this baby. He was an insecure leader, and his insecurity was matched by his enormous ego. But his political power base was shaky. In his paranoia he somehow concluded this little baby was a threat to his throne, so the homeless baby Jesus, became a national security threat.

Herod is determined to kill Jesus and to save his life, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt. The homeless Jesus, the national security threat Jesus, is now the asylum seeker Jesus, the refugee Jesus.

As millions of people are displaced across Europe fleeing the most unimaginable torture and violence, they are running for their lives. When I hear some people talk about the refugees making a “choice” to come to Europe, I reflect back on one of the most horrifying images of this year, the homeless refugee baby, Aylan Kurdi.

The image of that little three-year-old washed up on the beach in Turkey reduced me to tears. The parents of that little boy didn’t take him on that horrendous journey out of choice, they were fleeing for their very lives.

For a few weeks the refugee crisis was all our news media focused on, and now it hardly is mentioned. We would be tempted to think the crisis had passed. No one can accurately predict how many people are affected but we can see with confidence this is a number that can only rise in 2016.

Of course, these are real people just like us, with dreams and hopes for their lives and those of their children. In the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral is a small Huguenot Chapel. In 1685, over 200,000 French Protestants fled to England to escape persecution in Catholic France.

This little chapel is a reminder of the generous hospitality Britain gave to these frightened, scared and displaced people.

We need to rediscover our national story of hospitality and welcome to the stranger. In September John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York wrote movingly of his own story of coming to the UK in 1974 as a sanctuary seeker fleeing persecution in Uganda. He wrote that he became more than he was.

He is, of course, right. Across Britain refugees and asylum seekers have become more than they were. They are doctors and nurses, teachers and dentists, and even Archbishops in the Church of England.

I hope in 2016 we can rise out of fear and self-interest, and see our opportunity to respond to this refugee crisis with compassion and generosity.

The homeless and refugee Jesus challenge us to think afresh. Of course, we provide help but we must try to alleviate the conditions that push people into homelessness and to seek asylum. As my friend and former Church Army President Desmond Tutu puts it, it is right to fish drowning people out of rivers, but we must go upstream and stop those who are pushing them in.

* Mark Russell is Chief Executive of Church Army and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @markrusselluk