Freedom to Welcome Refugees

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Twitter is not real life, I remind myself as I spend my lunch break scrolling through feeds often filled with vitriol and rage, where the loudest voices appear to be the most numerous. After a disheartening foray into a world where anyone can share their hate-filled opinions without the accountability of human contact, I return to my desk. I return to telling the stories of resilient immigrants and courageous refugees, and the selfless compassion of churches and individuals who sacrifice their time, talent, and resources to welcome them into their communities.

I look up from my keyboard and out into the parking lot. I see an older white man, probably in his sixties, gingerly toting a covered infant car seat toward the building entrance. He pauses to glance behind himself, and from behind a parked car hurries a petite African woman, a length of bright floral fabric carefully wrapped and tucked around her waist. She catches up to the elderly man, and together they walk inside for an appointment with a caseworker.

This is the story I am invested in telling, the story of strangers becoming family, unexpected and beautiful.

But just last week, Pew Research released a new poll in which respondents were asked, “Does the United States have a responsibility to welcome refugees?” The group least likely to say yes were those who identify as white evangelical Christians. Only 25% responded affirmatively.

I wish I could tell myself that research polls are not reality, but they are far more likely to be an accurate representation of it than my Twitter feed. It appears that many American Christians remain blind to the beauty of the stories I get to witness and retell on a daily basis. Those stories show the 25% who are stepping out of their comfort zones and taking part in the ministry of welcome.

The Pew poll raised far more questions for me than it answered. Would more evangelicals have responded “yes” to a question about whether or not Christians have a responsibility to welcome refugees? Did respondents consider that the question asked was about the responsibility of the U.S. government and not its obligation? Would responses have varied if the term “responsibility” had been defined as moral, political, or legal? I search my mind for an explanation to the incongruity between the poll’s results and the image of an elderly white man chatting with a petite refugee woman as he cautiously carries her sleeping infant in its car seat.

I must accept that both can be true - that only 25% of white evangelicals believe the U.S. has a responsibility to welcome a single, suffering refugee, and that I am also blessed to witness the beautiful, restorative power of welcome walking through the parking lot at work every day.

What I can’t accept is that I live in a country where the former reality has been given the power to destroy the latter—where the calling of the 25% to participate in the ministry of welcome is being undermined and trampled on to appease those who disagree.

I do not believe that welcoming the stranger is the obligation of any secular government, including the United States’, but I do believe it is God’s command for Gospel people and Gospel communities, and any government that seeks to obstruct the ability of its citizens to live out their faith should be challenged.

Across the U.S. thousands of Christians have volunteered their time to gather household goods and furnish apartments for newly arriving refugee families. They have trained as English tutors and are driving refugees to appointments and job interviews. And they are frustrated.

They are frustrated that the ministry they have been called to is becoming more and more difficult to do. Apartments sit empty and household goods are collecting dust in warehouses because of the significantly reduced rate of refugee arrivals.

There is an impasse between those who believe that they have a biblical responsibility to welcome refugees and those who do not want the U.S. government to continue the resettlement program. Canada takes a very different approach to refugee resettlement, and I wonder if they might have a solution for us.

Canada plans to resettle approximately 27,000 refugees this year. 18,000 of those—a full two-thirds—will be sponsored by Canadian citizens and organizations. This means that Canadians will cover the financial costs of resettlement and commit to support a refugee family through their first year as they begin to integrate into their new community. The number of refugees Canada resettles is largely dependent on how many Canadians step up to welcome them, and the Canadian church plays a significant role in this, with approximately 70% of refugee sponsors connected to local churches.

If the U.S. were to adopt a model similar to Canada’s, there would be a host of benefits. The cost of refugee resettlement would be covered by individuals, families and churches, drastically reducing the cost to the government, which would only be responsible for vetting arrivals. Refugee families would be guaranteed a strong support system already in place when they arrive, which significantly reduces the likelihood of government dependence in the future. The support of sponsors could also accelerate integration and ease the transition into a new community.

But most important, adopting a sponsorship model of refugee resettlement would result in freedom—freedom for Americans to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be involved in welcoming refugees. The 25% of white evangelicals who responded affirmatively to Pew’s poll have a right under the Constitution to practice their faith, including the biblical command to welcome the stranger. Adopting a refugee sponsorship program like Canada’s would give all Americans more freedom, both those who want to welcome refugees, and those who prefer to aid refugees overseas. Those, like myself, who believe their faith compels them to welcome refugees to their homes and neighborhoods would not be barred from doing so.

I can’t get the image of the elderly man and African refugee woman out of my head. The recent decline in refugee resettlement, down over 75% since 2016, means that fewer relationships like that one will happen, and fewer Americans will experience the joy and challenge of friendships with refugees. I, for one, am not ready to relinquish my freedom to witness, participate in and tell the stories of these beautifully unexpected friendships.