Recently returned from working with asylum seekers and refugees in Malta, Doug Marshall told Jenny Muscat how his perspective on Christmas has shifted thanks to his experience there.
Reflection questions for groups
If you are listening with your small group, you may like to reflect on some of these questions together:
- What was the one thing that most struck you when you were listening?
- What phrase or thought found an echo in your own experience or spiritual journey?
- Were there any common threads that linked the mission work of the people you’ve listened to and the needs of your local area?
- Does what you’ve heard inspire you to do anything in particular in response?
- What one prayer need will you commit to carry with you over the coming month and regularly pray for?
Voiceover: Hello and welcome to another Church Mission Society podcast. We try and bring together stories from people across the globe who are involved in God’s mission so that you can pray, learn and participate in mission too. To discover more stories, visit churchmissionsociety.org.
Jenny Muscat: Hi, this is Jenny and I’m with Doug Marshall, who’s recently returned with his family from Malta as a mission partner. So Doug, can you tell me a bit about what you were all doing?
Doug Marshall: Yes, so Malta, which is in the Mediterranean, just south of Italy. Some people are not sure. So you’ve got to be clear.
It’s a very small island. Highest population density within Europe. And as you’re probably aware, there’s a lot of migration from Libya and North Africa to Europe. And Malta is part of what we call the central Mediterranean route. Obviously, this is an unofficial route. So people are smuggled across and probably people are aware of a lot of what’s gone on regarding that and various agreements being made or tried to be made with the Libyan government. So it’s a lot of people facing either getting on a boat, going to Europe or the thought of staying in North Africa and trying to go back to wherever they’ve come from is impossible, because often that journey, if they’ve come from central east or West Africa, that journey has been harrowing. I mean, you need to take a look at a map and see exactly where you have to go through. And what they’ve experienced by the time they reach the North African shore is often as bad as what first displaced them. So it’s almost a no brainer when you’re sitting there thinking, if I can get on a boat and just try and make it to Europe, I’m going to do that. And if I die trying, so be it. So that is often where a person’s at by the time they arrive in Malta. And often they don’t know where or what Malta is. I mean, most people don’t, it’s a very small island. I think the archipelago can fit within the M25 about five times. So have a think about that. People arrive and the reception is not ideal, shall we say. And as a result, there’s a lot of isolation. There’s not a lot of support. Mental health is quite an important issue amongst refugees and a lot of them struggle with it.
So how do we come alongside people? Because I really think we need to do that. If we start to say, well, they are a category of person, i.e. refugee. We categorize and I think we know from what Christ has told us that to categorize is not the thing to do. How do we come alongside someone who is different to us and how – should we even be asking the question, how do we demonstrate our humanity? Maybe we’re at a problem already if we ask asking how to demonstrate our humanity. So a lot of what we were doing was very much relational work coming alongside people. And like I say, for some people, it’s all of five minutes. For some people it’s been five years and we’ve been alongside and you’ve seen them grow and develop and wrestle with the issues and often with things far beyond what any of us have experienced. And so in that respect, it’s also humbling for us because I’ve never had to flee my home. I’ve never had a gun stuck to my head. And I’ve not had extortion or political bias where someone is threatening my life because of that. So we’re dealing with a host of things and whereas there are services available. What people really need, they need to be identified and recognized as another human being with all the hopes, desires, fears that we all have. And so that’s a lot of what our work has been, is to help break the isolation that people have experienced or are currently experiencing, because once they arrive in safe Europe and yes, no one’s trying to kill them. That’s great. That is a definite step forward. There’s still a long road ahead. So it’s by no means over on arrival.
Jenny Muscat: Great, thank you. And so you came back to the UK over the summer as a family to settle back into life here. And now we’re approaching the festive season, Christmas is coming. With all of the busyness and commercial realities of Christmas in the UK, how do you approach that? How do you adjust to that coming from working with the marginalised and the outsider? Does it shift your perspective on Christmas?
Doug Marshall: I think it shifted a while ago.
And so in a sense, it’s not as shocking, although you still you sometimes go into the shops. And I think because it’s – the commercial aspect of it now and it’s consumerism’s high holidays, if you will. There’s no other time of the year where we spend so much money on anything and everything. I think the main – yes toys are a big thing. So of course, the toy companies make a lot of money. There’s the chocolate companies seem to be trying to dominate the entire market from January to December. Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas. You know, you get the picture, but coming in and seeing that. I think part of what I do is – you talk to people about it because as much as there is evidence and we see it of this this this consumerism, there are people who are also sick and tired of it. And they’ve got to the point of asking, well, is this all there is? Is this it? Our high point. And sure, it’s a fun time. I mean, it’s good to be inside when it’s cold and to be warm. And you have some mulled wine. The Christmas colors, green and red. Those are generally great colors. I get the festivities and I think it is an exciting time of year. I just don’t think it needs to start in September.
But it’s a time to ask ourselves, is this a reinforcing of insular thinking? Is it time to be charitable? And we know it is. I remember after the tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004, I think it was, the charitable giving was literally off the charts. It was huge. So there is that element and that’s great. But I think I asked people. OK, so we have Christmas. It’s wonderful. But what, what about after Christmas? And so, yes, we should, I think, open our tables, extend our tables, which is becoming a common metaphor. Always. I don’t know how common it is, but it’s getting traction. Extend our tables and then, how do we extend them beyond Christmas? You know, we know January can be quite harsh sometimes and we know a lot of people struggle, especially if they’ve overspent over Christmas.
But how can we turn around something that has become a little bit more greed focused? How can we turn that into something that is a celebration? And getting back to what it’s about. I mean, we think of Jesus, a refugee looking for room in the inn. You know, he was a particular demographic that had been targeted. If you want to put it in modern terms, there’s a particular demographic that have been targeted, and needed to move. And one of the questions we can ask ourselves, would we recognize him today if that had happened? And the reality is we are seeing something very similar. And so I think it’s twofold. Yes.
How do we still celebrate Christmas? But the true meaning of Christmas? And how does that extend beyond Christmas? And not just maybe rear its head at Easter. So I think it’s as much as these holidays are important and they’re a good focal point, how does it impact what we do? Because it is easy. That other part of charity is easier to compartmentalize. Oh, well, I have done A, B or C. I’m a good person. Maybe I’m a do-gooder. I don’t know. I know that some people use that phrase, but. How can I make this a lifestyle, something that all year round that we are actually seeing that and I don’t?
That doesn’t mean I want to hear Christmas jingles all year round! Some people may love that, but how do we take that ambience, that picture of Christ in the manger, no fanfare. And yet I think it’s okay to celebrate, you know, I like a bit of lights and a little bit of cheer.
Jenny Muscat: So I guess there’s a taking the missional opportunity, firstly, of Christmas, to kind of go, yeah. This isn’t all – it isn’t just about the chocolates and the shopping.
Doug Marshall: Right.
Jenny Muscat: But also to take that missional opportunity of where people are at in January. And that flatness and saying, well, actually. At the heart of Christmas is the incarnation, and that’s not over when you take the tree down.
Doug Marshall: Exactly. Yeah. So I think it’s how do we do that? And it’s to in one sense decompartmentalize how we approach life. Some-sometimes we have to compartmentalize. I don’t have a problem with that, but I think I just see when we categorize people, then it’s easy to compartmentalize them. Well, you are this. You will always be that. I am this. I will hopefully always be this and, if your identity and your value is found in Christ, you cannot but start to think and look. Oh, hang on. How, what can we do that brings other people to the table? How can we just extend that without any coercion, without any expectation of thanks, but to actually demonstrate a Christian or a Christ likeness that is for all. And so the wonderful things that come, you know, the wonderful things, it’s not how big a present you get, although my kids might argue with that one. They would say how it is dependent on how big the present is! But it’s not how big the presents are or whether you’ve even met the expectations of the people you’re buying for. Because I either say buy me something very practical or buy me something so expensive you can’t afford it and you wouldn’t buy it for me. But hey, that’s my ultimate dream and you want to make me happy. Whereas what we can do is say how do we bring this ambience, this atmosphere, this grace, this mercy, the Spirit to everyone at a time when we remember Christ the incarnation, but that his goal was to be somebody who was the image of an invisible God and represented all the characteristics of God, love, mercy, compassion. So, yeah, I think it’s, let’s take them, let’s build momentum and take it with us through the year. How do we do that?
Jenny Muscat: That’s great. I mean, you’ve kind of beautifully expanded upon our Christmas appeal this year that people may or may not have seen that we’re inviting people to set an extra place at Christmas this year. But yeah, actually, to take that beyond to see that Jesus talks about the banquet and inviting – going out into the lanes and inviting everybody to that feast. So, yeah. Being open.
Doug Marshall: And it’s starting somewhere, you know, we’re not expecting people to, you know, put up a thousand strangers for Christmas lunch kind of thing. But these things start in small pockets and I think that’s how it works. The more of us doing smaller little things makes a huge difference, a huge change.
Jenny Muscat: Yeah. And so we can all maybe bring some warmth into the winter months, kind of after Christmas of opening life to others. Well, thank you for taking some time out to have a chat.
Doug Marshall: No, thank you for having me.