I recently spoke at a church in the Midwest. My exhortation included a reminder of God’s image in our refugee neighbors, including those families caravanning out of violent communities south of our border. When we see strangers through the eyes of Scripture, our obligation differs from what the pundits and politicians preach on cable news. We find ourselves at the Nile’s edge, like Pharaoh’s daughter, poised to receive the Hebrew baby from the other side of the river. We see a person under threat of a death edict and respond with welcome.
In the lobby after the service, several people rushed over to thank me for speaking directly about refugees and immigrants. “I’ve been waiting for someone from the pulpit to say something,” one woman said as she pressed her hand in mine. I expected to be chided for talking about a controversial topic or accused of wading into politics. However, to my delight, congregants were glad to hear a word from our holy book about modern sojourners and our role.
What became clear that Sunday morning was that we not only need but also want to have better conversations about immigrants. We want to hear the clear instruction of Scripture regarding refugees. We want the opportunity to wrestle together about how to welcome strangers, even as we remain vigilant about possible dangers. Often we look to our pastors and other church leaders to host these discussions. So where do church leaders begin?
Diminishing the Distance
Kent Annan, director of humanitarian and disaster leadership at Wheaton College and cofounder of Haiti Partners, offers a place to start our education in You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us. As a veteran of international development work with experience in refugee projects in France, Kosovo, and Jordan, Annan offers expert guidance on both the theology and practice of refugee response. With a depth of knowledge and great gentleness, he invites fellow Christians into the necessary exploration about whom we welcome and why.
His initial chapter poses a foundational question with regard to refugees and immigrants: Are we for or against them? Annan posits that how we answer “reveals a lot about what kind of family, community, and country we want to be.” He goes on to say, “After the answer comes the work to understand the nuances and navigate the complexity.” This is what I deeply admire about his work: He does not ignore the complicated nature of these conversations. Annan walks us through the thick tangle of biblical imperatives and practical questions.
He addresses real concerns about immigration and hospitality: Will incoming people take our jobs? Will the influx of immigrants open us to security risks? Will they change our neighborhood in unfavorable ways? Will the presence of these strangers compromise our ability to care for our own? Annan compassionately answers these questions by using the most recent data on demographics, crime, and economics, as well as harnessing his experience with refugees and the organizations that serve them.
But the challenges related to welcoming immigrants and refugees are not only external matters. The possibility of lost jobs or increased crime stirs internal fears we carry. Sometimes opening our door to those unlike us forces us to confront our own latent xenophobia. When we’ve lived with the privilege of stability—never fleeing our country due to violence, never traveling across borders in search of work, never needing refuge elsewhere—it is easy to lack empathy. This is why we are invited into the internal work of welcoming the other, which includes self-examination, confession, and lament. You Welcomed Me moves us through well-reasoned arguments toward spiritual formation so that we can be the compassionate people of Christ who are equipped, inside and out, to welcome the stranger.
One practical encouragement Annan offers is to increase our proximity to immigrants. Proximity disarms so much of our fear, allowing what was foreign to become familiar. A perfect example comes in the form of Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me about Loving My Neighbor, by Shawn Smucker. In this memoir, an American writer living in Pennsylvania meets a refugee from the southern Syrian town of Umm Walad—and not by accident. As a writer with a desire to help the refugee community, Smucker reached out to a local chapter of the organization Church World Service. He asked to be connected with a Syrian refugee who would be willing to let him write about that person’s story. The first meeting Smucker had with Mohammad started with an intentional introduction. This was the initial step toward diminishing the distance between him and the reality of the refugee experience. What good fortune that Mohammad reciprocated.
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Source: Christianity Today