Faith Communities on the Front Lines of Refugee Response

By: Jenny Yang

March 2, 2020

Finding Hope in Humanitarian Crisis

I was recently in Tijuana, Mexico, visiting some migrants who were seeking asylum in the United States. They were being housed by a small church whose pastor has opened up the entire building to house migrants who had fled violence and persecution back in their home states. Hundreds of migrants from Haiti, and now Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, received shelter and food at this church, but they also received so much more. They found a sense of hopefulness and friendship that they were not alone in their journey. One migrant woman I met from Guatemala was pregnant and had left behind another child in order to flee to the United States. She was so grateful to have found this church to live in, as she said she’d likely be out on the streets, vulnerable to crime and violence, as a pregnant woman. In the midst of such loss, insecurity, and vulnerability, this little church was an answer to her prayers.

At a time when we’re facing the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, it can be hard to find glimmers of hope, as the numbers of those displaced have steadily increased over the past few years and as our elected officials have played political football with refugees’ lives. Moral leadership instead is coming from these small communities of faith that actively reach out and assist refugees as a part of a global network of people who are at the front lines of the displacement crisis. Fueled by their faith, they are sacrificially loving their neighbors, meeting not only their physical needs but also their social and mental needs. They are not succumbing to their fears or basest natural instincts to exclude and ostracize but rather are willing to lead to create room where everyone belongs.

These small communities of faith are often overlooked in the humanitarian response even though they complement the work of many front-line humanitarian organizations and go deeper to restore individuals in their trauma. Churches can help refugees find a sense of home in their new location because they are rooted in communities and are naturally outward-focused in helping their neighbors wherever they are. Many churchgoers form relationships with refugees that help them feel less alone and combat ongoing feelings of isolation and marginalization. The ability for refugees to not only have their physical needs met, but their social and psychological needs, is critical to make sure that there is healing and wholeness from trauma and loss. The local church also has the influence and moral authority to shape behaviors rooted in biblical values of love, compassion, and justice. This means pastors and church volunteers are creating welcoming environments not only through their hands-on ministry but also through teaching and discussion. At World Relief, we’ve challenged and equipped many pastors to preach about immigration from the pulpit. 

Many of these churches know that these tangible expressions of love may not change the political calculus of our elected officials to address the root causes of displacement, but faith creates empathy, or the ability to walk in each other’s shoes, and spurs its members towards good deeds. These small instances of charity and friendship are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, reminding us that there are glimmers of hope in a what can seem like an overwhelming situation.

I was recently at John Brown University, a Christian university based in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where I met a group of students who were active in advocating for refugees in their state. They held up signs when the governor spoke at their chapel and met with him afterwards to press him to keep Arkansas a welcoming state for refugees. And they were mobilizing their campus to support the GRACE Act, which would authorize the refugee ceiling at 95,000, the historical average. In addition, policymakers like Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colorado) have cited their faith in supporting refugees. In a recent letter signed by 17 House Republicans, he said “As a Christian, I believe we should assist those who are forced to flee their homes, and as Americans, I believe we should do everything we can to assist these refugees around the world.” These students and policymakers who use their influence and voice provide hope that our response towards the displaced can truly be one filled with compassion and justice for the most vulnerable among us.

In one of the best videos I’ve seen on what welcome can truly mean, several women from The Village Church in Dallas, Texas, befriended a pregnant Sudanese refugee woman who was resettled with her children, but not her husband. For over three years, this woman remained separated from her husband, even giving birth to a baby boy without her spouse by her side. But these church volunteers were able to witness a miracle when her husband finally arrived and met his son for the very first time. People of faith are often the lights at the end of a dark tunnel who can demonstrate to a broken and suffering world that the world as it is now is not as it should be in the future. It’s their acts of charity, service, and advocacy that inspire generations of policymakers and humanitarian aid workers to not give up in the face of significant challenges and obstacles.

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