“Nine in 10 Protestant pastors in the United States say that, as Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to care for refugees and other foreigners based on clear biblical injunctions, according to LifeWay Research. The same survey found that only eight percent of local churches are helping refugees – nearly half acknowledged a sense of fear in their congregations regarding the arrival of refugees.” – Sojourners, December 2016, p. 8.
It has been a confluence of things this Advent/Christmas season that has had me reflecting on the immigrant situation and the worldwide refugee crisis. First and most obvious is the daily news of the horror in Syria and the inability of the worldwide community to end the killing and brutalization of innocent people. Knowing the plight of those innocent Syrians, particularly the faces of the children, the elderly, and the disabled leaves me speechless and hopeless. It is reported that there are more refugees in the world today than at any time since World War II. Most of them, unlike the Syrian refugees, are people we never hear of in the news. My own daughter, Rebecca, keeps me apprised of her work in Myanmar with the Rohingya people, among the most oppressed group of refugees in the world. While they may be out of our sight, they are known and loved by God!
I’ve been watching these reports of refugees while immersed in the Christmas stories. As I said in my Christmas Eve sermon, the Christ child was, in a sense, double-refugeed! In Luke’s story, there was no room for the Holy Family in the inn; refugees in their own hometown of Bethlehem! In Matthew’s version of the story they are refugeed in Egypt as they flee King Herod. I know the title of this reflection is a bit “in your face” at this joyous time of year, but is it not glaringly and shockingly true to the biblical accounts?
AMOS, an ecumenical, interfaith organization in Cincinnati that works for social justice, recently announced its desire to organize “sanctuary” and “solidarity” congregations in an effort to address the refugee and immigrant situation here. I am engaged with AMOS and desirous of learning more.
Of course, my trips to Guatemala, our friendships there, the continual stories of hardship and danger for innocent people, and knowing one person in particular who has twice crossed into the United States illegally makes me sensitive to the subject.
Finally, it seems that the political environment in our country has become less friendly toward offering welcome to the other. This is troubling to me when the biblical mandate throughout Scripture offers a consistent welcome to the least among us. It might do us well to dig into Scripture to gain an appreciation of the frequency in which the weak and needy are provided welcome; for example, in the law of Moses (Exodus 22:21-27, in the Psalms (Psalm 10:17-18), the prophets (Jeremiah 7:5-6), as well as in the teaching of Jesus himself (Matthew 25:34-45).
Given this overwhelming exposure to refugees and immigrants recently, the Sojourners article quoted above grabbed my attention and led me to write this article of my introspection. This seems incomprehensible to me; that 90% of Christian clergy understand a biblical mandate to care for the refugee but only 8% of churches are doing anything about it! So I have been thinking, what could LCR be doing?
As you are likely aware, in the past two years we explored the possibility of converting the Streng House into a home for refugees. Unfortunately, that could not work out. That was a faithful attempt and I was glad for congregational support of the idea (with some cautions). Short of that, what can we be doing to alleviate the refugee and immigrant crisis?
Before offering some ideas, I want to make two points. Lutherans have historically been among the leading denominations to offer assistance to refugees. This runs deep in our history. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), one of the leading refugee resettlement organizations in our country, was founded in 1939 to address the widespread needs in Germany, Austria, and eastern Europe during World War II because of the high percentage of Lutheran refugees suffering in those countries. Loving refugees is not only biblical for us, it is in our DNA!
Second, I cringe every time the news reports an event of terror that is traced to a person who is nonChristian, of color, and from a foreign country. The recent act of terror in Berlin is the latest example in which the outcry seems to be, “See, we should not allow refugees into our country because they are terrorists and want to harm us.” My heart aches for Chancellor Angela Merkel (daughter of a Lutheran pastor) who has been so welcoming of the refugees in her policy in Germany. The terrorist stereotype makes no sense to me and feeds on our fear of the neighbor whom we do not know. I think about Dylann Roof, the ELCA Lutheran who killed nine Christians in prayer at Mother Emanuel Church. I would cringe if anybody said he represented us and that our young men ought to be singled out. The truth of the matter, especially in our country, is that refugees go through extensive screening, rarely commit acts of terrorism, and are making significant contributions to our economy and communities! Jesus continually warns us not to fear. Counter-cultural Christian faith will require taking risks periodically for love of neighbor.
In the months ahead I will be speaking with the leaders of our church to consider how we might be part of the 8% of churches that are ministering to refugees and immigrants. Here are some of my ideas:
Pray; publicly, in worship, in groups and in our personal lives.
Advocate; let’s have more LCR members visiting the LIRS website and signing up for updates. (www.lirs.org)
Get connected; I plan to attend the AMOS workshops and events locally and find out what would be entailed in LCR becoming a “solidarity” congregation. This would affirm our desire to be a community of love and hospitality as well as providing tangible resources, monetary aid and accompaniment to refugees.
Provide aid individually and as a congregation. The LIRS gift catalog (I have placed copies in the information rack) works like the ELCA Good Gifts catalog and is a simple and effective way to contribute.
Learn; I will continue to write, preach, and teach on this subject and I welcome your engagement in dialogue about it. If you are interested in some reading, I recommend They Are Us, by Stephen Bouman, a prominent voice in the ELCA today. (I’ll be glad to loan my copy to you.)
Nurture; an environment within our congregation that proclaims love of the “alien.” I believe this currently exists and I am sure that we can go deeper.
As with all of our ministries, this effort will require members who are interested, supportive, and willing to get involved. As I speak with our Church Council and other leaders about this effort, I invite your engagement with me. Regarding this subject, it is a particularly important time for us to be the Church! Two thousand years ago there was no room in the inn for the Savior of the world. By His Spirit there must be room for all of the refugees today. What role will LCR play in the Christmas story?
About the Author: Pastor Henry Zorn is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.