Nowadays churches are divided about refugees. Some adopt, resettle, and guide refugees while others see them as a threat. Even within one church you can find opposing groups on this matter. As a person who works with both refugees and churches closely, I’ve noticed that it also depends on which refugee population we’re talking about. If a refugee family comes from the Latino world, you won’t find as much resistance, say, as if they come from Syria.
This is plain sad. It goes without saying that churches refuse to be the Good Samaritan because politics cloud their judgment despite the fact that the greatest refugee who ever lived on earth — Jesus Christ, who took refuge from Herod in Egypt — is the founder of the community. I do understand many churches’ concerns for safety and the nation, but I believe churches are called to aspire to higher and deeper spiritual goals.
But I’m not writing this to blame churches. I’m writing this post for those communities of believers who adopt, resettle, and become the Good Samaritan to refugees. I’m here to say that I have seen firsthand the impact of this noble work both on churches and on refugees: it changes lives, transforms faiths, and creates lasting ties. Through interaction with refugees, churches learn how to love without obliterating their differences in worldview, values, and beliefs. And through interaction with churches, refugees learn what it means to follow Jesus Christ, the stranger among us.
In the last few years I’ve had the privilege of assisting many refugees and the churches that adopt and resettle them. I have been working with a church plant entirely comprised of refugees from Africa. Along the way, I noticed certain actions that set apart the churches successfully adopting refugees from the churches that can’t get anywhere even if they want to adopt a refugee. Here I will share some actions to help those churches which are in the beginning phase of discussing and adopting refugees yet don’t know what to do.
First Action: Discussion and agreement within the community
Before adopting any refugee, the majority of a congregation should clearly agree on this matter. In and of itself, this is a trivial step, but what makes it so important is the explicit discussion and publicly acknowledged agreement. This will prevent later any conflicting parties trying to appeal to pre-settlement discussions to justify their cause. The more people within the congregation who contribute to the discussion, the better it is. A pastor’s preaching about the matter and small group discussions of how the congregation should move on would clarify important details.
Second Action: Form a Team Dedicated to the Refugee Resettlement Plan
If there is one step that makes a world of difference, this is it: the team that will shoulder the burden. This team should be a group of passionate people who volunteer to discuss the details of the process, the logistics of moving refugees and finding a home for them, and forming the vision and next set of actions. The more diverse the people who participate in this team are, the better it goes because settling refugees requires the consideration of many factors that are beyond a narrowly specialized group’s capacity. This team’s primary job before the refugees’ arrival is to gather information, crystallize their vision, contact the necessary organizations, and appoint volunteers with specific tasks. After a refugee family arrives, the team will be the first circle of care-givers: the team members find a home, take the refugees to the doctor, arrange their re-education, help them find a job, visit and interact with the refugees, keep the congregation informed of their progress, etc.
Third Action: Establish transparent communication with the congregation and within the team.
This team and their pastor should establish a channel to communicate with the rest of congregation about how the refugee resettlement attempt is developing. It may include the pastor’s weekly announcement of developments from the pulpit, a team member’s written newsletter to the whole congregation once a month, or the team’s work to educate the congregation through Sunday school classes. Communication matters so much so that, if done incorrectly, it may hinder the resettlement process and alienate the congregation from the shared vision. The congregation will especially appreciate it when the refugees arrive, things happen, and people want to hear about their progress.
Fourth Action: Contact and be involved with Refugee Resettlement Organizations
There are various organizations that help churches resettle refugees. These organization have expertise, sources, contacts, and case workers to make the magic happen. I’m personally familiar with two of them: Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas. The team’s job is to contact these organizations, express the desire to adopt a family, and go through the process that these organizations advise. Such organizations can help with interpretations, financial support, cross-cultural issues, and legal expertise. They also literally arrange the refugees’ arrival into the US, and from that moment the team moves in to work with the refugees.
Fifth Action: Educate team members and refugees about cross-cultural interaction.
This action should start before the refugees arrive but must continue until the refugees become independent and their daily interaction with team members becomes less frequent. The importance of this action cannot be overstated. Cross-cultural interaction is an iceberg whose underwater parts (such as people’s assumptions, values, and rules of interaction) directly affect what is observed. I have seen people be confused or completely misread one another’s behavior simply because the same outwardly behavior may indicate different things in different cultures. So to avoid this, either teach or find someone who can help the team and congregation increase its awareness of cross-cultural communication. This will help both the refugees and the team, and it will lessen the stress that comes with displacement.
Sixth Action: Share the overview or the plan with the refugee family from the beginning until they become independent so that they know what to expect.
After the refugees arrive and catch their breath, the team should share the plan of resettlement with them. If the team planned for the refugees to formally become independent and be on their own after six months, say so. It will avoid lots of misunderstandings later. Let the family know every step of the process from the day of their arrival until the day they formally cease to be an adopted refugee so that they know what’s happening and can get ready. This will also build trust between the team and the refugee.
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