Meet the Minister Making Room for Refugees In Dallas

The Canyon Creek Presbyterian and Gateway of Grace Easter Egg Hunt in Richardson, Texas, on April 15, 2017. (Laura Buckman for BuzzFeed News)

The Canyon Creek Presbyterian and Gateway of Grace Easter Egg Hunt in Richardson, Texas, on April 15, 2017. (Laura Buckman for BuzzFeed News)

Samira Page has made it her life’s work to help other Christians — and all Americans — love and welcome foreign refugees. In Dallas, that work is paying off.

At 10 a.m. on the day before Easter, the area around the Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Northeast Dallas already has the manic air of a massive children’s birthday party. In one corner, a bounce house pulses like an arrhythmic heart. Volunteers from the church assist an endless line of kids as they climb the stairs of the giant inflatable slide. Toddlers absentmindedly drag Easter baskets behind them, trickles of sno-cone wandering down their party dresses. It’s like any other quasi-public Easter egg hunt, with just one defining difference: Half of the families are refugees.

In the parking lot, women in hijab stare intently at bingo boards; many children are tasting cotton candy for the first time; there’s a brief retelling of the Easter story in English, Farsi, and Arabic. The lawn swarms with adults — some of whom are related, some of whom have gradually taken on the role of second parents — as they guide, photograph, and/or chase after kids rooting around in the grass for plastic eggs.

The mostly white, mostly middle-class Presbyterian church had long hosted its own Easter egg hunt, but last year, it joined with an organization called Gateway of Grace, to make it a very different kind of celebration. “We had some concern in the congregation that it might be weird, or awkward,” Pastor Andy Odom told me. “But then we realized that the kids are totally fine with this — they go to school with all different types of people. The only people who’d feel awkward were the parents. So we let go of that, and look at what we got.”

This is Gateway of Grace’s second hunt at the Presbyterian church, but they’ve been putting on the event since 2011. “When my family and I came to the US, some of the most difficult times were around the holidays,” said Samira Page, Gateway of Grace’s founder. “We didn’t know what was going on. We could see everyone giving gifts and going to parties and getting excited, but we had nowhere to go, we had no family, we didn’t have money to buy a pie. I was so homesick; I’d just sit at home and cry. So when I started Gateway of Grace, I thought, There’s no reason any refugee should feel like this on any American holiday — not when God has given to us abundantly.”

Page is an Episcopalian minister, but Gateway of Grace isn’t a church. It’s a ministry with two very specific missions: to decrease the fear of refugees in the Dallas Christian community, and to foster loving friendships between Christians and refugees in need. Page isn’t looking to convert people, but to model Christ’s love — and, in so doing, help change the very temperature of refugees’ reception from frigidity and fear to endless warmth and compassion.

That might sound like empty rhetoric, or, at the very least, overly optimistic. But for the hundreds of people who’ve worked on both sides of the equation with Gateway of Grace, the experience has been nothing short of revelatory. Over two weeks in Dallas this past spring, I heard many versions of the same idea: that the vast majority of people who are scared of or unwelcoming toward refugees — and Muslim refugees in particular — are people who have never actually met a refugee, or a Muslim. Once you have, something inside you changes.

“When we talk about refugees or Muslims, it’s all abstract,” Page says. “But when you meet a young mom, or see a smiling child, you see: That’s a mom like me. That’s just a child! It melts those walls and barriers.”

In many ways, Page is the perfect messenger to help people understand this. She’s a refugee herself, with a testimony that compels people to shut up and listen. She converted to Christianity; she got her doctorate; she’s an ordained Episcopalian minister. She speaks perfect English. She is, as my mother would say, a “put-together woman.” She’s the exact sort of person that Dallas residents are ready to hear when she tells them to open their hearts.

Every year, she travels throughout Texas and the United States with a very basic message: I was a refugee. God spoke to me. You are a Christian. Listen to God and believe: These refugees are here for us to love them. And that message, articulated in workshops and sermons and one-on-one conversations over the last seven years, has had a significant effect on the Dallas Christian community, across denominations and across the political spectrum.

Page will tell you that this is God’s doing, and if you’re a believer, that’s easy to understand. But it wouldn’t be happening if Page hadn’t built the infrastructure to effectively retrain people’s hearts and minds — this sort of work is far more complex than simply pairing white people who have old furniture to donate with the refugees who need it. It’s about providing a “soft landing,” as refugee assistance programs are often called, but it’s also about creating a world that will stay open and welcoming to these citizens long after they’ve arrived. And this world has been created, in no small part, by some of those who would have considered themselves most resistant to refugees in general, and Muslims in particular.

But don’t ask Page for a specific Bible verse to throw at people who want to keep refugees out. “We hear people talk about this verse or that verse, or the rabbi who said ‘welcome strangers’ was mentioned 26 times in the Torah,” Page told me. “But look at Genesis to Revelation: The one thing that goes through the scripture is the theme of being a refugee, and God being a savior, and God welcoming us. That’s the main thing! It’s the entire narrative of the Bible. It’s what the whole of Christianity is all about.”

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SOURCE: BuzzFeed
Anne Helen Petersen

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