Canadian author and refugee activist Ann Voskamp has challenged Australian Christians to abandon what she calls “the idolatry of security and comfort” and share their tables with refugees and other vulnerable people who need to know the comfort of Christ.
You don’t have to go overseas to change the world, she says. Before writing out a grocery list, just write down the name of someone with whom you can share the food you buy.
The author of four best-selling books, including the powerful memoir, One Thousand Gifts, is making her first visit to Australia to address the Just Women conference in Sydney on Tuesday and in Melbourne on Wednesday. Her theme is “Cross-centred hospitality and what this looks like in the face of big global issues of injustice.”
As we sit in luxury sipping coffee at Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel, it’s easy to make a connection with this fragilely beautiful woman whose poetic writing has helped thousands of people meet Jesus. But her message is far from comfortable. Rather than seeing hospitality as entertainment or social attainment, she says Christians should use hospitality to make a robust gospel statement of refuge and welcome for the marginalised.
“There are 24 refugees every single minute on this planet who are fleeing violence – and it could have been us!”
“I feel like the church is very clear what we are against, but I feel in this moment in time when the world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II – there are 24 refugees every single minute on this planet who are fleeing violence – and it could have been us!” she says.
“Now is the time for the church to witness to the world what the church has always been about, which is refuge, which is about the open, welcoming arms of the saviour. Now is the time for the church to step up and say we have Christ as head of the table; now we get to make a place for you at the table.
“It is a tremendous missional opportunity because these people are in desperate need of rescue and we get to open up our homes and our communities and share the love of Christ with them and be the hand and heart of Christ.”
Voskamp, who began writing her blog, A Holy Experience, as a way of making sense of the messy ups and downs of home-schooling her seven children, describes the great personal joy she and her family have discovered through welcoming newcomer families to their little farming community in Ontario, Canada.
“For me personally, our journey began with me – I went to Iraq three weeks after the 21 Coptic Egyptians were murdered and I sat in a shipping container with Yazidi women who had fled ISIS, and they told their stories in tears of how they only had two arms and which of their two children they could grab and which of their two children they didn’t know where they were,” she says, through tears of her own.
“You realise you are born where you are, as Esther in the palace, for such a time as now – to risk it all for those outside the gate.”
“And you realise you are born where you are, as Esther in the palace, for such a time as now – to risk it all for those outside the gate. And I think we need to tear down our gates and build longer tables and lay out more plates.”
After Voskamp came home from Iraq, she and her husband Darryl decided to take advantage of the Canadian government’s PSR programme, which allows private sponsorship of refugees. While they were completing the paperwork to bring over a Muslim family from Aleppo in Syria, they also filled in the paperwork to adopt a little girl from China who had a heart defect.
When the Syrian family arrived in Canada after 12 years in a refugee camp, they were expecting to receive just four days of support from the government and then be on their own. Instead, they were surprised to be welcomed at the airport with signs in Arabic greeting them by name, to be told by the Voskamp family that they would look after them for a year.
“We supplied their housing and worked towards integrating them into society by education and ESL and drivers training and getting them a job – everything that they need for that first year. And then after we graduated our first family, we brought over a family from the Congo and Burundi. So now we have a Middle Eastern family and an African family and our little girl from China all at the same table together, literally … the joy is unspeakable, it truly is – especially for us, living in a very homogeneous culture.”
Voskamp has coined the term Gen-Esther for the kind of activism she believes Christians are called to live in response to a global crisis that robs people of human dignity.
“You can be both a protester and an insider at the same time.”
“You can be both a protester and an insider at the same time,” she says, referring to her actions in praying for refugees outside the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last year, before going inside as an invited guest to hear President Donald Trump.
“It’s exactly what Esther was – she was an insider but also an activist, in many ways, for those outside. And I think that is what we’re called to be as Christians – especially for those of us who have been given so much.
“I think we are the Esther generation, we are called to such a time as now. I don’t think it’s a Christian sideline hobby to think about crises in the world – I think it’s a Christian’s vocation and calling. Hospitality isn’t a sidebar to our theology – hospitality IS our theology.
“You’re saved and now you’re called to a cruciform life, to pick up your cross for others and to risk it for those outside the gate and to be like Esther and to say ‘if I perish, I perish,’ because I think we have made idols of security and comfort as opposed to calls to pick up our cross and come and die so that others may live.”
Voskamp acknowledges that she earned her voice in the public square as a result of the huge success of One Thousand Gifts, which spent 60 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2011. It details the deep suffering and tragedy that marked her early life and how she found healing through gratitude.
“I wrote One Thousand Gifts out of my own life. Sometimes I think you write about the things you are not expert at… My default is not gratitude.”
“How did One Thousand Gifts change my life? I wrote One Thousand Gifts out of my own life. Sometimes I think you write about the things you are not expert at, write about the things we’re wrestling with and struggling with the most. My default is not gratitude; my default is perfectionism – always looking for what is at fault and needs to be fixed as opposed to look at all the gifts and grace and the goodness of the Lord right here.
“So I wrote One Thousand Gifts out of my own journey towards a grateful life and I really struggled with fear and anxiety and agoraphobia. My first memory is when I was four years old my 18-month-old sister was killed in front of my mother – she was run over by a truck in our front yard – so for me growing up life was really terrifying – at any moment something horrific could happen.
“I was diagnosed with an ulcer when I was seven, then I was cutting myself in my teens and by university I was diagnosed with agoraphobia.”
Although she had been saved as a teenager, Voskamp says her love of God and his grace was at a more cerebral than a heart level, and she continued to struggle with anxiety.
She explains: “Someone dared me to write one thousand things I loved, and I took up this dare and all through the day I was jotting down things, and I was really counting all the ways that he loved me – all the ways that he was kind – and realised that you can’t simultaneously be anxious while you’re being grateful. Perfect love casts out all fear, so gratitude began to radically transform my life.”
“I think sometimes in our pain and suffering we can get insular… we just want to take the goodness and hold on to it…that doesn’t heal us.”
She says her follow-up books, The Broken Way and The Way of Abundance, are looking at two sides of the same coin.
“That’s the way of the abundance – it’s an upside-down kingdom; that is, when you live a cruciform life, broken and given out to the world, we paradoxically are given the most joy,” she says.
“So for me it’s participating in the sufferings of Christ by living a cruciform life and seeing all of his gifts and goodness – a gift never stops being a gift, it’s meant to be given and passed on into the world – and I think sometimes in our pain and suffering we can get insular and we just want to take the goodness and hold on to it and that doesn’t heal us.
“If we can take the gifts and pass them on to the world, we come alongside the wounded healer and become part of the healing of the world and healing our own brokenness. And that’s my own story, that as I contemplated the gifts of Christ, I became an activist to pass on these gifts. And that has healed so much of my own brokenness.”