Jesus said “love your neighbor” and these days, many of us have reduced this to mean paying for your friend’s lunch after church.
According to a survey, 86 percent of Christians believe they have a responsibility to help refugees and foreigners yet Christians are two times more likely to fear refugees than to engage in helping them. At a time when many politicians are talking about refugees fleeing war like an inconvenient safety breach, what is the church’s role in responding?
Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization at World Relief. We talked with him about his new book, Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of The Global Refugee Crisis to ask.
Why did you write the book? There is no shortage of commentary on refugees, particularly this year of all years. Why bring something else to the table?
At World Relief, we have been serving refugees since the late 1970s so we have been doing this for a long time, in partnership both with the state department, as well as lots and lots of local churches. But the interesting thing is honestly, refugee resettlement was never controversial, at least in the 10 years or more that I’ve been at World Relief. It was other immigration issues, “What about those who were undocumented?” those have always been controversial questions.
Refugees were kind of the easy part of what we did. They are people who want legal status. They have these very compassion-inducing, sympathetic stories of fleeing from persecution.
So it’s very interesting that it’s just been in the last year when that image of Alan Kurdi floating ashore on the beach in Turkey went all over the internet and all over newspapers, all over the world. It created a wave of interest, both in a sense of positive interest and compassion towards the refugee crisis coming out of Syria in particular, but very quickly followed by another wave of interest which was focused more on fear.
Based on research, what are some ways in which these fears aren’t grounded in reality? Like say, the particular fear that refugees are going to be a conduit for Islamic-based or ISIS-based terrorism here in the United States?
I think a lot of those misunderstandings are based on some statements by politicians who will say things like, “Well, we have no process to vet refugees” or even by seeing images of people coming ashore in Europe and people presuming that somehow we’ll have a parallel situation in the United States, that people are just showing up and we have to figure out who they are.
In the United States, we admitted 70,000 [Syrian] refugees. Every single one of those individuals was vetted and was screened by the U.S. government, the State Department in coordination with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the FBI. It’s a very thorough process that happens entirely overseas.
It usually takes at least 18 months, often much longer and those are just the few refugees who are actually going to be resettled.
Less than half of 1 percent of the world refugees were resettled to the United States. The vast majority never even get considered. I think one of the best evidences that the U.S. process is quite effective is we’ve actually never had a terrorist attack in the United States perpetrated by someone who came in by the U.S. Refugee Settlement program.
Is this primarily a political issue?
It never used to be, and I would prefer it not be.
Of course it’s going to be a policy decision on who come into the United States. I spend a lot of time answering the question, “Is this safe?” and I’m happy to do that, but the question I’d rather be answering is “Who is my neighbor?” and I think that’s a really compelling case for those of us who are followers of Jesus that the Syrian refugee or the Burmese refugee is our neighbor.
That’s true when they’re overseas and we should do what we can to come alongside local churches to take care of them.
One of the things we do with World Relief is we work with a small group from a local church which we call a Good Neighbor team, drawing from Jesus’ words in Luke Chapter 10 of the story of the Good Samaritan where we’re there to welcome that family and really commit to walking alongside them for the first six months to a year that they’re in the country helping them with some basic cultural adjustment tasks but more importantly just by being friends. And for a lot refugees, they’ll tell you that their most significant need as they arrive is for a friend.
What is it that person could be or should be doing to help refugees? Is it a matter of looking around? There’s this sense in which it’s such a big issue being talked about by world leaders that helping the matter seems almost unattainable. How do we engage?
The first thing I would encourage people to do is find that local opportunity to engage. Even if you can give up an hour once a week to volunteer.
We have 27 World Relief offices around the country and there are other partner organizations like Catholic charities or Lutheran immigration refugee services, many of them are faith-based that are also doing refugee resettlement in some of the communities where World Relief is not. But they all have opportunities to volunteer and those are very hands on, it’s often a very simple task of befriending someone.
Maybe it’s helping someone learn English or practice English. I found that knowing one person makes this huge global issue more understandable, it doesn’t make everything make sense, but it’s a way for us to engage as followers of Jesus and that I think will inspire people to do things like call their representative in Congress.
So let’s back up a little bit. I know earlier on in the book you deal with some of the more theoretical or foundational aspects of who even a refugee is. Walk me through that. From a biblical perspective, who is a refugee?
The Bible doesn’t necessarily give us a particular definition of a refugee.
The Scriptures talk a lot about the foreigner in the land and in most cases those are people who had been pushed out by something, often by violence. Legally, in the US and internationally a refugee is someone who has fled their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, political opinion, national origin or social group.
So certainly, I think the people who our government recognizes as refugees fit into that biblical definition of a vulnerable foreigner whom we see throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament as well.
When we’re commanded in the New Testament to practice hospitality that is the Greek word ‘philosinia,’ it literally means to practice loving strangers. So having your friends over for lunch doesn’t actually get us off the hook there. That’s the way we tend to use hospitality, but when we’re called to practice hospitality biblically, it means those who are unknown to us, those who are different than us. And that’s countercultural.
What happens if a particular party or candidate becomes the controlling party in the US and we shut the doors to refugees. What does the church here do in such an extreme time?
Unfortunately, that’s a real question and we’re making contingency plans. The president actually has a ton of authority under U.S. law. Under the refugee act passed by Congress in 1980, the president basically gets to set the ceiling for how many refugees get to come in. If he or she says that that’s 0, speaking hypothetically here, the president has that authority.
I also think it’s really important even beyond the church’s role, to think about how this plays into foreign policy. Part of the reason the U.S. accepts refugees is humanitarian and part of our national character and history.
Another part is we need to have some leverage when we tell a country like Jordan or Lebanon that you need to have your doors open because Lebanon has taken more than a million Syrian refugees, Turkey has taken more than 2.5 million, Jordan has taken at least 600,000, maybe significantly more.
Our state department is encouraging them to continue to let people come in because if they’re turned back to be slaughtered it takes a horrific humanitarian nightmare to a whole other level. But we lose that leverage if we’re saying we won’t do anything.
As it is, we’re doing far less than those countries in terms of the number of people that we’re receiving. We took in 70,000 as a big wealthy country. Jordan, a very tiny country with limited water resources, takes in 10 times that amount or more.
One last question, what’s your hope for the book when you wrote it? What’s going to make it successful or not?
Our passion at World Relief is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. We wrote the book because with this [issue] becoming so politically charged, we wanted to make sure the church is still there to welcome refugees.
A big part of that is the United States has been described by President Reagan and others as a shining city on hill, but our larger concern isn’t the reputation of the U.S. When Jesus used that expression, he wasn’t talking about the United States, he was talking about his followers.
You are the light, you are a shining city on a hill, let your light shine before people so they can see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.
And there are literally millions of refugees in the world today who are looking at followers of Jesus all around the world, not just in the United States, and are making their opinions about who Jesus is based on how his church responds to this refugee crisis.
And I’ve seen the church respond in heroic ways both in the U.S. and even more so in places like Canada or Germany or Jordan or Turkey, but I think the opportunity is greater than what’s being lived out right now. And we want to see the church stand for that. Because whether that response is one of welcome and hospitality and love or one of scapegoating and fear, people are determining what they think of Jesus based on how His people respond right now.