Marbuen Diaz leads the Church Engagement Team at Baptist World Aid. Born in the Philippines, Marbz spent the first ten years of his life living in a red-light district. Growing up surrounded by poverty, Marbz began to question, ‘where are you, God, in this dark situation?’
Today, a deeply held conviction that ‘God is always there – present even in dark places’ feeds Marbz’ passion and dedication to his service and leadership. We sat down with Marbz to take a deep dive into his thinking around refugees, and the invitation he feels God is issuing to Australian Christians to partner with vulnerable, marginalised people.
BWA: This month, we’ve been hearing stories from Lebanon, such as the story of Roula, a Syrian refugee mother living in a tent camp. You’ve been there. Tell us about your experiences with the people you met.
MARBZ: My experience was amazing. We visited the facilities being used by the church to serve the refugee community there. The simple things we take for granted (here) were making a significant difference in people’s lives. The church provides access to books, clothes washing facilities and educational services for children.
These basic things are so important in helping people maintain their dignity in this crisis.
One young girl we met, about 10 or 12 years old, had learned to speak English in the church facility. She told us about her dreams for her future. After, I remember thinking it is very easy for us, here in Australia, to take the simple act of dreaming for granted. But dreaming is a luxury, and uncommon for people surrounded by hopelessness, just trying to survive. In meeting this girl, we saw how the church was not only helping to meet her basic needs, but also creating a space that was enabling her to dream. Amid a terrible situation, she had hope for her future, and the future of her family.
Caption: Marbz, pictured top left, with your BWA staff, board and church supporters visiting your local Christian partner in Lebanon, who empower women through their sewing training program.
BWA: Serving in such challenging circumstances, would you say that hopefulness was something that characterised the people you met from those churches?
MARBZ: The people I met were characterised more by the resilience of their faith. When war erupted in Syria, and refugees began to arrive in Lebanon, the people of this church were faced with a choice – do we use our finances to set up our building, or do we help these Syrian refugees? Do we create ministry around us or around them? In this divided society, do we serve our own or do we seek to serve all people and provide opportunities for all? In making their choice, the church has become an amazing witness in that community. People who’ve been rejected by their own communities know they can come to that church and be accepted, because they accept everybody.
I remember thinking it is very easy for us, here in Australia, to take the simple act of dreaming for granted.
BWA: Speaking of refugees, what does the gospel, and the Biblical narrative, say to us about refugees?
MARBZ: What I have learned from reading the Old Testament is that God has his eye on the refugee. Tim Keller (a pastor and author in NYC) talks about ‘the quartet of the vulnerable’ – the widow, the orphan, the foreigner (refugee), and the poor. Large portions of the Bible focus on these groups, not because God shows favouritism, but because the vulnerable are always pushed to the margins. Justice, care and nurture are withheld from them and this matters to God.
We read in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 10, God’s command is to love the refugee because you were once on the outside yourselves. The Israelites understood this because they were slaves and foreigners in Egypt. God says clearly to them, and to us, ‘care for the vulnerable, care for the refugee because, remember, I have cared for you.’ In this way, the gospel is an invitation to step into empathy, and ask, ‘how will God’s grace respond to the situation faced by those on the margins, those in the dark?’ It is not enough just to be accepted into God’s grace; he wants us to grow in that grace.
BWA: What are some ways we can practically participate in addressing the challenges faced by refugees today?
MARBZ: First, pray. And then, pursue awareness. (By reading the news, and our website; follow Baptist World Aid on Social Media; engage others in conversations around the issues and try focusing in on singular issues, such as Syrian refugees in Lebanon, to avoid becoming overwhelmed).
Our prayer creates a desire to understand these situations better, that understanding then deepens our care and leads us back to prayer. We don’t come to God hopeless, we come with faith. When we pray, we pray believing God can and will act. When we pray we come to understand our place in seeing God’s kingdom come here on earth.
BWA: But sometimes the global refugee crisis today can feel overwhelming. How do you stay hopeful in the midst of it?
MARBZ: First, seeing the witness of my brothers and sisters overseas brings about a fire in my soul that encourages me. They lead me in my understanding of what resilience is and what faith looks like. I am reminded of the Psalmist’s descriptions of the Cedars of Lebanon. In situations of crisis, upon crisis, war upon war, the witness of these faithful servants will outlive them – their witness is like the Cedars of Lebanon. Their faith is a spiritual legacy that outlasts any conflict.
Our supporters here in Australia also inspire hope. They don’t know our brothers and sisters in these places, and yet they respond, in solidarity, by loving their neighbours with generosity. Seeing the work God is doing in his people here in Australia, seeing their generosity and God’s grace at work gives me hope.
BWA: If there was one message you could convey to churches in Australia on behalf of our partner church in Lebanon, what would it be?
MARBZ: I know exactly what they would say because I’ve asked them. They would say, ‘thank you’. That really is all they would want me to say. They do not operate from a place of lack or live in a spirituality of deficit. They come from a place of generous gratitude. They know God provides and they are thankful. And what a privilege it is for us to join in God’s work through them.
Bonus questions (because Marbz has a lot of good things to say!):
BWA: What keeps you grounded and present here in your day to day when your heart and mind are engaged in big global issues?
MARBZ: First, I know that my primary calling is to my family – to my wife and three children. My wife and I are discipling our kids, preparing them to live as people of God in this world. Focusing on them and their formation is very grounding.
Then there is our local church. The meaningful relationships there help to keep me grounded.
Third, I understand that a win for justice here is a win for God’s justice everywhere. Likewise, when a brother or sister overseas overcomes injustice, that is a win I can celebrate. I used to be overwhelmed, as a young person, in the face of everything going on in the world, but God challenged me to focus on responding to the needs in front of me. How can I serve my family, my local church and community?
It also helps me to remember that we are not the saviours of the world; we are just joining in what God is already doing.
BWA: How do you think can we become more like Jesus at a time like this?
MARBZ: I would say first be present. What it means to be like Jesus today is to be present with God and who he has connected us with, people we are already in relationship with. The temptation is to try and fill up your life with more but just be present. ‘Present people’ are really needed at the moment.
Secondly, we need to learn to listen well, to develop our capacity for listening. In a world where there is so much isolation (even pre-COVID), a gift to people is our genuine presence and listening. When we tune in to what people’s hearts are trying to say, I think we become more like Jesus.