An Interview with Matthew Soerens

Today I am thrilled to share with you an interview with Matthew Soerens, the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization at World Relief. In the interview Matthew will tell you a little bit more about his role at World Relief and how he became involved in living out God's command to welcome the stranger. If you enjoy this interview, be sure to follow Matthew on Twitter and Facebook where he shares current events and his own articles about refugees and immigrants. You should also check out the books he has co-written with others from World Relief, Welcoming the Stranger, and Seeking Refuge. I wrote a review of Seeking Refuge here.

An Interview with Matthew Soerens

Tabitha McDuffee: Tell us briefly how you became involved with refugees. What was your journey like from being relatively ignorant of the issue to being such a prominent advocate for it today?

Matthew Soerens: “Relatively ignorant” is probably generous. I grew up in a relatively ethnically homogeneous part of the country—in northeast Wisconsin—and I don’t think I ever really thought much about what a refugee was at all until I was in college. If I knew anything, it was from television or the radio or the Internet, which don’t always provide a very thorough or nuanced view of the refugee experience.

Then about ten years ago, as a senior at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, a friend who had volunteered with World Relief to befriend a family of refugees from Rwanda asked me if I’d join her. Their family included a twelve-year-old son whom my friend Anna Ruth thought would benefit from a male mentor. That family quickly became good friends of mine, and taught me a lot about both what it means to be a refugee and what it’s like to adjust to life in the U.S. after having been resettled. When I graduated from college a few months later, I moved into their apartment complex, where most of my neighbors were refugees or other immigrants. So this “issue” became very personal, as people who had come to the US as refugees became some of my closest friends.

TM: What do you do in your current role at World Relief?

MS: World Relief is one of nine organizations nationally that is authorized by the US State Department to resettle refugees. We’re a bit distinct, though, in that our mission is not simply to welcome and help integrate refugees well—though we certainly aim to do that—but “to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.” My job, as US Director for Church Mobilization, is to work with staff in our World Relief offices around the country to make sure that we’re reaching, equipping, and supporting local churches well so that they can be on the front lines of welcoming refugees. We don’t necessarily care if a resettled refugee remembers how wonderfully they were served by World Relief, but we would like every one of them entrusted to us to have the experience of being warmly received by volunteers from a local church. To do that, though, we need to both find more local churches willing to step up to welcome refugees and to make sure we’re doing the very best we can do as an organization to serve churches and volunteers, to answer the questions that they’re asking, and to provide the training and technical support to serve refugees well.

TM: Why is educating and mobilizing the church so important? Don't most Christians already consider welcoming refugees a cause they should be involved in?

MS: We work with more than a thousand local churches in the US who are actively engaged in welcoming refugees and other immigrants, but the reality is that the significant majority of local churches are not currently involved in serving refugees. LifeWay Research did a poll of Protestant pastors earlier this year and found that just 8% said their church is currently involved in welcoming refugees in their local community—despite the fact that fully 86% of the pastors affirmed that, as Christians, we should care sacrificially for refugees and other foreigners. The reality is that welcoming refugees has become very controversial, and in most local churches, there are usually at least a few people who are strongly opposed to refugees being resettled in the US. Sadly, white evangelical Christians (my category of Christian) were more likely than any other religious demographic to tell the Pew Research Center last year that the US should not bring more refugees into the country in the midst of the greatest global refugee crisis in recorded history. So a big part of my job is helping to make the case—biblically, missiologically, and in terms of the facts—that welcoming refugees is actually a remarkable opportunity for the Church both in the US and elsewhere in the world, and that our response ought to be fueled by Christ’s love, not by fear.

TM: Explain a little more why the refugee issue should be an important one for Christians. What does serving refugees have to do with following the example of Jesus?

MS: Well, first of all, if we profess to follow Jesus, we follow a Refugee. The Gospel of Matthew relays how Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were forced to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the threat of murder from King Herod. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that by welcoming one of “the least of these,” we actually could be welcoming Him, and that when we fail to welcome in a stranger, it could be Jesus Himself whom we are neglecting. Many of the refugees who arrive in the U.S.—including close to half of those who came in last year—are already Christians of one sort or another, many of whom have been persecuted precisely because of their Christian faith, so welcoming refugees is a unique opportunity to stand with the persecuted Church. On the other hand, many refugees are not yet Christians, so as we welcome them, we have the opportunity to, as 1 Peter says, “give an answer to everyone who asks” us for the hope that is within us. And when a team from a local church comes alongside a refugee family to welcome and assist them, I’d say it’s quite rare that they’re not at some point asked why they’re extending such kindness, which gives us the chance to point people to Jesus.

TM: The 2016 presidential election is quickly approaching. With all the negativity surrounding refugees in the media, what role do you think this issue will play in the voting decisions Christians make?

MS: I think it’s easy to become cynical about politics, especially given the uniquely crazy electoral season we’re having this year, but I know many Christians who care passionately about refugees and for whom refugee and immigration policy is one of the most important issues impacting their voting decisions. Of course, there are always other important issues, too—the same biblical principles that compel us to look out for the interests of refugees should, I would argue, also lead us to be concerned with educational inequality, or abortion, or caring for the environment. But this year seems unique because refugee and immigration issues have become such a central issue. The reality is that who becomes president will have a huge impact on refugee resettlement, because, under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president has the authority to set the ceiling of refugee arrivals to the US for any given year, and if he or she wants to set it at 0, that’s within their authority—unless Congress could come up with the votes to change the law to limit the president’s authority in this area (which would likely require overriding a veto). In past elections, refugee resettlement has always enjoyed broad, bipartisan support, but it’s obviously become very controversial this time around. I’m hopeful that Christians will take the wellbeing of refugees into account as they vote, and that even beyond their individual votes, they will speak up for just policies toward refugees both in the U.S. and globally.

TM: When someone finds out that I work with refugees it is often in a situation where I have limited time to explain what that means. As a fun exercise can you give us your best refugee elevator speech (for lack of a better phrase)? What is the most important thing for you to communicate to people about refugees when you have limited time to share? 

MS: Good question… I guess what I usually tell people is that I work with an organization that works with local churches both to welcome refugees in the United States and to serve them abroad. Refugees are people much like you or me who have been forced by persecution to flee their countries of origin, and my job is to do everything I can to make sure they are welcomed when they arrive here just as I would hope to be welcomed if I were forced to flee my home, and ended up in some foreign airport or at some border crossing. I guess that’s a long way of applying Jesus’ golden rule, to do to others as we would have them do unto us.