How the Church Can Respond to the Nations at Our Doorsteps
In President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address to the nation 25+ years ago, he borrowed a line from Jesus, describing the United States as a “shinning city on a hill.” He called our country a place for those fleeing loss, persecution and trauma, a place “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” whose “doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34)
While these words perhaps do not as accurately reflect the sentiment of many in our nation today, they should still ring true for followers of Jesus who have been commanded to “love the stranger” to “care for the widow, orphan and the prisoner” and to “do justice and walk humbly with our God.”
This is especially salient as we consider the 21.7 million refugees around the global, 65 million globally displaced people including 12 million Syrians, and the 250,000 women and children who were refugees and have arrived in the U.S. since 2011 after going through rigorous vetting and security checks. (Source: U.S. Department of State)
Today, Minnesota is 13th nationally for the number of refugees who call our state home, but is also ranked second in the number of refugees per capita (Source: Star Tribune, Sept 2, 2016). While anyone living in the Twin Cities has experienced this significant population change as such groups as Burmese, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Nepalese, Somalis and Liberians now join our children in schools and shop where we shop, the changing demographics are also being significantly felt in places like Willmar, St Cloud, Moorhead, Faribault , Rochester and dozens of places in-between.
So, how can the church respond to the new realities?
In the midst of the greatest migration and displacement of people in the history of the world (surpassing even World War II), how can individual Christ-followers and our congregations respond to our new neighbors, who on average have spent 17 years as refugees before coming to Minnesota?
With friendship and a listening ear: When a recently arriving refugee family was met at the airport by a church team trained by Arrive Ministries, they were welcomed by two dozen people and a colorful welcome banner. At first they thought that a dignitary was being welcomed, but when they found that they were the focus of attention, they declared “we have never been welcomed anywhere in our lives.” Clearly, when it is the Church that welcomes the stranger, it is a powerful expression of the Gospel.
Several months ago, I was at a gas station buying a cup of coffee and decided to buy coffee for the Somali man behind me in line. His reaction was to ask “you aren’t from around here, are you?” And then, for the next 30 minutes out in the parking lot he described to me the comments, stares and animosity he has experienced since he arrived in Minnesota 12 years ago as a refugee from East Africa. He thanked me for my kindness, for treating him as a human being and even allowed me to pray for him and his community who are feeling afraid right now, unsure of their futures and concerned if they will be able to be reunited with loved ones still residing in refugee camps overseas.
With patience: Many express concern and impatience with the rate of assimilation, the speed of English learning and the cultural uniqueness of some of our new refugee neighbors. We are often slow to remember that every generation of immigrants has experienced these same assimilation struggles.
When we welcome a stranger, we welcome Jesus himself. If we fail to do so, we fail to welcome him (Matt 25:41-46)
Let us not expect new immigrants and refugees to do things that our own ancestors had trouble doing. Current research indicates that immigrants and their children are actually assimilating faster into American society then in any previous generation, because of media, education, English Language Learning programs (Source: The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, 2015). In almost every immigration era, the first generation has trouble learning English. The second generation learns English at school. And the third generation has trouble communicating with grandma and grandma in their mother tongue.
With practical action: Most refugees arrive in Minnesota (more than 2,500 directly from overseas and another 1,000+ from other states in 2016 alone) with little more than the clothes on their back and a few valued possessions. Churches have the privilege to serve refugee families and address physical, social and spiritual needs. Churches partnering with Arrive Ministries are reaching out with friendship and practical service through such avenues as:
Refugee Life Ministries (RLM): Church teams (often existing small groups within a church) who come alongside a refugee family for at least one year and help them navigate their new lives in Minnesota. In the past 12 months three dozen churches have been matched to a refugee family through Arrive Ministries.
Somali Adult Literacy Training (SALT): Each week several hundred volunteers do ESL and tutoring in the apartments of their Somali neighbors in more than 20 location in the Twin Cities and a half dozen out-state cities. Learning English is a felt need and a practical way to develop lasting friendships as we share our lives and Jesus.
Church Refugee Gardens: This year 1,900 refugee families have garden plots at Twin Cities area churches. Refugees who are living in high density apartments are growing culturally appropriate and nutritious food, are getting good exercise and the cathartic benefit of dirty hands, physical labor, and providing for themselves and their extended families. At the same time, churches are finding that they can share the resource of land, friendship and a shared love of gardening as they reach out cross-cultural to people who might not quickly step into their churches, but are grateful to have a non-threatening place to connect.
Sports, Sewing, Baking outreaches: Still other churches have started basketball and soccer programs where their own youth and refugees are enjoying similar passions for sports. Other churches have quilt and sewing classes where women in the church are helping to teach practical skills and sharing their love of working with fabric. Still others are teaching their new neighbors how to bake, while they also learn from these new friends how to make wonderful ethnic dishes.
These are just a few examples of practical ways our churches today are responding to the nations at our doorstep. Still other are offering citizenship classes for those who are preparing for the naturalization exams, or learner’s permit classes, or serving as job mentors or bus orientation guides. The avenues for making a difference are almost as numerous as our imaginations and faith. I personally believe that God has blessed our state with a plethora of refugees and immigrants because He knows that His church is up to the task of loving and celebrating our new neighbors just as Christ accepted and loved us.
For more information on how you and your church can welcome, serve and love refugees as yourself (Luke 10:27), please visit www.arriveminsitries.org
Bob Oehrig is the Executive Director of Arrive Ministries which has resettled nearly 11,000 refugees in Minnesota. Arrive Ministries whose mission is to help empower the church to transform the lives of refugees, is an affiliate ministry of both Transform Minnesota and World Relief.