The Courtroom

Venturer Judson Park reflects on ministry with refugees seeking asylum in Vienna

The Positive Outcome

You are allowed to return to your new home, your friends, your city, your life. You have the freedom to live, to move outside of the borders of Austria for the first time in years, the freedom to explore or reconnect with family. You board the metro that will take you to your apartment. On the brink of dancing with joy, you quickly call as many people as you can to tell them the news: you are safe.

The Negative Outcome

Silence. A quiet, yet deafening, realization that the future you hoped for has now leapt far out of reach. No returning home to a warm bed. No more evenings with friends, exploring the great wonders of the universe. Ten years of a life lived in safety have been ripped away from you with the uttering of a few words. You are ordered to return to a country that now seems foreign to you. This is not because you aren’t familiar with it, but because you have actively tried to forget the difficult memories of your homeland that are shrouded in a thick veil of suffering, torment, sadness, and fear. As you hear the blood flow through your ears, you see the world you are forced to return to–the pain and suffering that await you. You stand as one without a home. Lost.

This heartbreaking possibility is the reality of many of my friends going through the asylum-seeking process here in their new home of Vienna, Austria. The majority of cases I have witnessed personally in the courtroom thankfully haven’t been as black and white as what I’ve just described. Nevertheless, I’m certain that the image I’ve constructed in my mind over the past two years working with refugees is a fair and realistic representation of the situations for the vast majority of individuals with whom I am in contact.  

My presence in the courtrooms is a relatively new development in my work here in Vienna and since January, I’ve only been able to attend a handful of interviews. Yet this little experience has drastically impacted my life and view of the world.

The court interviews I attend are part of the asylum-seeking process of the men and women from my church who come to Austria seeking refuge from the danger in their country of origin. In all of the cases, they are being interviewed to, in a sense, “prove their faith.” In addition to clarifying their life story to the judge, they must also prove that their conversion to Christianity is sincere.  

The pressing question I’ve had to wrestle with during my time here has been: How can I help? How can I possibly help those facing this incredible challenge? If I had had formal education in Austrian immigration law and studied German from a young age, I would undoubtedly be in the seat of the lawyer fighting on their behalf legally. But I’m a 21 year old with no higher education who left my country when I was 17 to live in Europe for as long as I could and found myself here through a series of “coincidences.” What do I have to offer in a line of work, much less a world, full of so much uncertainty, suffering, and fear?

When others ask what I do, I often joke that I act as a glorified emotional support dog. In my view, that’s exactly what I do: act as a calming presence for those in the court room. Further than that, I act as a physical representation of the support they have both from their church and from the family of believers across the world who are praying for them during their court appointment.

I remember in one case I was able to attend, at the end of the interview as the judge was handing down his decision, he blatantly told the man he didn’t believe his whole story. But through the testimony of his pastor (who had come to testify on his behalf) and my own presence, he was convinced that the man was sincere. He then addressed me, saying that I (representing the man’s church) was to not let him go, and to continue to walk beside him throughout his time here in Austria. As daunting as it was to receive such a directive when my German matches that of an infant, I stumbled through a response to confirm that it was my intention to do just that.

As I mentioned above, though I have limited experiences accompanying friends to asylum court hearings, the impact has been drastic. The relationship I’ve started with the men and women I accompany to court aren’t one-way relationships, they are mutually beneficial. In some cases, the people I accompany do much more for me than I could possibly do for them. In one of these cases, I was attending the interview of a man I had become close with during my time here. The judge who was conducting this specific interview had been particularly rough in her questioning, creating a tense environment in which I myself felt physically faint at the thought that she may not believe my friend.

At one point, the judge called for a five-minute break for some fresh air. As soon as they suspended, my friend looked back at me. Expecting an emotionless expression, I put on my best “you’re doing great” face. But as soon as he turned to me, he beamed the brightest smile I’d seen in a while. He then proceeded to bring me a water bottle that was set out for him because he thought I might need it. It seemed as if I was supposed to take off my shoes at that moment purely because, despite the heaviness of desperation in the room, the amount of love that was shown by this man shone through and created holy ground that I felt unworthy to walk on.

These are the values of the Kingdom. This love. This mutual support. This simple act of being present for someone. These are not only my convictions for this work, but also my credentials.  

Judson Park is currently serving as an Impact Missions Venturer. He lives in Vienna, Austria, and supports the work of the Baptist church projekt:gemeinde. Learn more about Judson’s work in Austria and the BGAV’s partnership supporting refugees here (as of June 7, 2021).