Here are the Evangelicals Trying to Make the GOP Care About Refugees

Jenny Yang on Capitol Hill (courtesy of Jenny Yang)
Jenny Yang on Capitol Hill (courtesy of Jenny Yang)

For evangelicals like Jenny Yang, a pro-life ethic means fighting for refugees.

Twelve days after Donald Trump halted the US refugee program with his controversial executive order, Jenny Yang traveled to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress to challenge it.

“We have a lot of concerns with the executive order,” Yang said, with quiet understatement. She was standing in the hallway of the Cannon House Office Building breaking down those concerns for Harvey Sparks, the legislative assistant to Oklahoma Republican Rep. Steve Russell.

A marble hallway is not an ideal spot in which to lobby for a cause. Sound reverberated everywhere, from the endless click of heels to the cacophonous clank, clank, clank of hundreds of bottles of soda being wheeled on metal carts. Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, didn’t seem to notice.

She was surrounded by a phalanx of other senior officials from pro-refugee groups, including the International Rescue Committee, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and Vets for American Ideals. Some 90 other advocates were in other offices across Capitol Hill doing the exact same thing at the exact same moment.

World Relief is one of the nine officially sanctioned organizations that resettle refugees in the US. And it has been in the driver’s seat of a push to rally evangelicals to challenge Trump’s ban on moral, practical, and biblical grounds.

“When you look at the parables in the Bible about how Jesus carried out his ministry, Jesus didn’t just talk about who he was,” Yang will argue. “He tangibly met people’s needs.”

Yang is part of a growing movement within the evangelical community that focuses on “living out the gospel” — that is, acting as Jesus would have acted — over partisan politics. Refugees, as they see it, should not be a political question but a humanitarian one.

For a movement long associated with following the GOP’s party line, talk of privileging what evangelicals refer to as the “kingdom of God” over party doctrine is no small thing. Yang’s work — welcoming refugees and guiding the faithful to do the same — represents that theological and political perspective.

The newest flashpoint is the refugee issue, which has created a cleavage between the Trump administration’s position and evangelicals — and possibly a fissure within the evangelical movement itself.

Either way, the fallout from this could be a reckoning moment for a Trump-run Republican Party. Though a small minority of prominent evangelical leaders — including, notably, Franklin Graham, founder of the advocacy group Samaritan’s Purse — expressed support for the ban, the vast majority of evangelical leaders had turned against it less than two weeks after it took effect.

“If we are not able to see this refugee issue as part of a pro-life ethic,” says Todd Deatherage, a former Bush administration staffer who works with evangelicals on Middle East peacemaking, “it exposes a thinness in our theology and practice.”

Advocates are on the front lines of the refugee issue

That day on Capitol Hill, Yang argued that the executive order fundamentally altered the US refugee program by slashing back the numbers expected on our shores, and potentially excluded the most vulnerable people, in its mandate to privilege religious minorities and by misplaced security fears.

“There is no historical evidence that we have let in any refugee that has committed any act of terrorism,” she said emphatically.

Standing next to Yang, Stacie Blake, of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, pointed out that she and other advocates were the ones meeting the refugees at the airport, putting them in their cars, and bringing them into their living rooms. If the refugees posed a risk, she said, then she and other advocates would be the ones confronting it.

For Yang, the refugee ban is a question of basic morality. “The power of God to demonstrate his love to a broken world will ultimately be displayed in the church’s response to this crisis,” she explained in a recent op-ed for Christianity Today.

“Jesus taught us to love radically, unconditionally, and sacrificially,” she wrote. “Our enemy is not someone who is of a different religion or culture or ethnicity; the real here enemy is fear.”

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Sarah Wildman

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