More than 13,000 people arrived in Vienna as refugees two weekends ago.
Many of them were clearly traumatized and in need of emergency medicine. All of them were exhausted.
Some of them had started the journey by walking out of Budapest along a live motorway in the hope of getting somewhere safe.
Lining the sides of the platforms as trains drew in were hundreds of ordinary Austrians – distributing water, fruit, medicine and clothing.
The issue of refugees traveling through Austria came to a head two weeks ago with the horrific deaths of 71 refugees in the back of a refrigerated truck.
On Monday, Aug. 31, 20,000 people marched through the center of Vienna under the banner “refugees welcome” – partly as a show of solidarity, partly out of frustration at the perceived inaction of the government.
Since then, members of the Austrian public have been organizing themselves, collecting donated items, organizing an army of voluntary interpreters and seeing to the basic needs of those caught up in the central European refugee crisis.
Using Facebook and Twitter, practical donation needs could be altered hourly, which meant that energy was being used in an efficient way.
Among the many volunteers were many from the Baptist church I serve in, who have been giving tirelessly of their time and energy.
Many people spent long days at train stations, helping give aid and just spending time with people and listening to their stories.
They are everyday heroes of the faith, working unseen in response to the promise of the Kingdom of God.
Our small church in Vienna, Project: Church, has a long history of working with refugees, having more than 10 years of experience in refugee-and-integration work as part of Austrian Baptist Aid.
We’re active not only in crisis relief work (though many of us are), but also in offering long-term practical support, accompaniment to legal hearings and government offices, integration German courses and counseling.
Many of the refugees who arrived in Austria in recent weeks headed on toward Germany.
For those who stayed, the existence of long-term projects, such as our refugee-and-integration work, will be key.
We have also an awareness of some of the realities behind media myths of left and right.
When I think of United Kingdom headlines about refugees having passed through many “safe-countries,” – for example, the implication being, “Why should they continue to Germany, other than greed?” – I have to shake my head and think of the many horrific eyewitness accounts I’ve heard of human rights abuses in these so-called “safe” European countries.
Stories of police brutality, sexual violence, organized crime, appalling hygiene and inadequate medical care experienced by refugees in Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Hungary are well documented by organizations like Amnesty International – and ignored by many political (and Christian) commentators in the U.K.
Christian churches in the U.K. and around the world can help in several ways:
First, please pray.
The work is hard, often discouraging and frequently comes up against the “powers and principalities” of the world. Outpourings of short-term sympathy, such as those seen this month, are encouraging but all too rare.
But the hope is that Christ has unmasked the powers as being ultimately powerless, and that he is building his kingdom through his church.
Second, study the realities of the issue.
I would urge churches to question the easy myth of “economic migrants,” to look hard at the definition of “safe country” and to understand the realities of physical, sexual and psychological trauma with which many refugees are living.
Third, I would like to encourage churches who would like to help out practically to seriously consider donating to organizations with a focus on long-term integration and support, rather than immediate disaster relief.
Donations of food and clothing for crisis situations can be easily organized by local cities according to need; material donations from abroad are often the wrong type or at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
However, churches and organizations such as Australian Baptist Aid – who work sustainably over the long haul with people, who continue after the media attention has died down – are what will make the real difference in people’s lives flourishing.
David Bunce works as a missionary and church planter in Vienna and is on the pastoral team of Project: Church. A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. You can follow him on Twitter @davidbunce.