An Interview with Tony Burrell, Founder of The Welcome Network

Today I am pleased to share with you an interview with Tony Burrell, Founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Network. I hope this gives you a bit of insight into the importance of welcoming refugees in the US and what that looks like at a practical level.  Tabitha McDuffee: Tony, you’re the Founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Network. Can you tell us a little bit about how the ministry started and who it serves?

Tony Burrell: Tabitha, first of all thank you for your efforts to help raise awareness concerning immigrants and refugees and the role of the church in America as it pertains to this vulnerable population.

I lived overseas for 6 years, and worked for a faith-based NGO. We tried to balance the Great Commission with practical, needs-based programs that helped people where we lived. Unavoidable life events brought me back to the United States, but I saw so many opportunities to minister to international people here, both in terms of practical needs and gospel-proclamation.

Nothing was tying together the churches in Indiana, nothing was bringing them to a point of “welcoming the stranger” as Jesus exhorts us to do. So I founded The Welcome Network to do that. We provide immigrants and refugees in Northwest Indiana and South Chicagoland with practical resources, spiritual mentoring, and real community.

TM: How did you become interested in working with refugees and immigrants?

TB: Having lived in Kosovo for three years from 2000-2003, I heard many stories of people who had to flee their homes or risk being killed. I also saw that there were sometimes atrocities committed by all sides in ethnic or religious or political wars like that. Civilians and families are the innocent ones caught in the middle. The refugee situation in Kosovo ended fairly quickly and many Kosovars returned home after less than a year. Most of the refugee situations in the world today are far less simple.

TM: Over the past 18 months refugee resettlement has become a controversial topic in a way it really wasn’t before. What do you say to people who are opposed to refugee resettlement? How do you address their concerns?

TB: The Welcome Network, myself and my Board and my staff team – we believe that the government’s job is to maintain our security. Our job as the Church (capital “C” relating to all followers of Christ) is to welcome immigrants and refugees as Jesus would – with practical services like language programs, legal aid, citizenship classes, job placement, and resettlement management. And also, as John Stott said, the other “wing” of the gospel: proclamation.

If you believe in sending missionaries overseas to help fulfill the Great Commission, then you must believe in doing it here locally as well. The alternative is hypocrisy. We can’t let fear or politics deter us or mix into our biblical mandate as followers of Christ.

TM: Even Christians are divided on this issue. As someone whose faith so strongly motivates your work with refugees, how do you specifically speak with Christians on this topic? What have you found to be the most effective way to encourage them to welcome refugees and immigrants?

TB: I think I probably jumped the gun and answered this in your last question…but my encouragement is to look into the gospel itself, in our lives. Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy. If we see ourselves as those needing refuge (as the Psalms often talk about), as those needing ransom (one analogy Jesus used for our salvation), then maybe it will affect how we see others.

Every part of our own story is due to His grace. To paraphrase Tim Keller, we didn’t choose where and when we would even be born! My response to being born in this country, in this century, into family where I never lacked for provision, into a land that doesn’t know war within its borders – should be massive gratitude. This, in turn, should point us toward welcoming others.

TM: This is one of my favorite questions to ask: How do you explain the work you do when you have a very limited time to share? In other words, what would be your best elevator speech about working with refugees?

TB: Oh man, I’m still working on that! I’m more of the long-winded, pastoral sort! But I think what I’ve been telling people lately is that I have the privilege of reuniting families, keeping families together, and playing a small role in rescuing people from war and terror. I get to be a case manager, pastor, lawyer, and motivator depending on the day. I get to connect people with resources to those with the need. And I get to do this in my “hot hours” of life. What a blessing!

How have other people answered that question?

TM: Very similarly, actually, by focusing on welcoming people and the privilege it is to serve refugees. Next question: President Trump recently signed an executive order that places a four-month moratorium on all refugee resettlement. Will the executive order affect the work of The Welcome Network, and if so, how?

TB: We just became a remote placement partner for refugee resettlement, so that means we have very few cases – but all of them right now are from the 7-countries that have been banned. Currently, due to the judicial process, the window is open so we are very intentionally trying to bring them in as quickly as possible so that all of our cases can be reunited with family who have already made it here to safety.

TM: How can my readers here at Faith & Forced Migration keep up to date with your work and support the work of The Welcome Network in practical ways?

TB: Visit our website. From there you can join our newsletter list, like our Facebook page, and even sign up to walk or run a 5K for refugees in April. Our families being resettled also need so many things; consider making a donation to help them. If you’re living in Northwest Indiana or Chicagoland, consider starting a Good Neighbor Team at your church to assist The Welcome Network or World Relief with family resettlements. And pray for an end to these conflicts, and an opportunity to bring both the humanitarian and proclamation “wings” of the gospel to people in need.

TM: Those are all very practical ways to make a difference for refugees who are starting new lives in our communities. Thanks for taking the time to share with us, Tony, and for the work you do.