Ways to Welcome the Refugee

An Interview with Matthew Soerens of World Relief

Over the past several months we’ve witnessed the heartbreaking struggle for millions of Syrian refugees to reach a safe place to raise their families. Recently, the Obama administration has announced plans to include about 10,000 Syrian refugees among the 75,000 refugees slots allowed for the 2016 fiscal year. Some citizens may feel fear at the idea of allowing thousands of Muslims to settle among us. Others feel relief that we have done something as a nation. But what does this opportunity mean for the church?

I reached out to Matthew Soerens, the U.S. Church Training Specialist for World Relief, to give us insight and guidance about refugee ministry opportunities in our communities. He and Daniel Darling have written for TGC about the biblical and theological impetus for Christians to reach out to refugees. Today we talk about practical ways to do that.

How do refugees get here? How are they screened and chosen? Who decides which American cities they will live in?

In recent years the U.S. has resettled approximately 70,000 refugees from a variety of nations. To qualify as a refugee, under both U.S. and international law, one must demonstrate that they’ve fled their country because of a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social group. The U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense along with the FBI are involved in a thorough screening process to ensure that one both meets this legal definition and is in no way a public safety or health threat to the U.S.

With an estimated 19.5 million refugees in the world today (and an addition 38.5 million who are internally displaced, having fled their homes but still within their national boundaries), only a tiny fraction each year are selected for resettlement to the U.S. The State Department determines which individuals will be selected for resettlement, based on their own criteria, with referrals taken in many cases from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For example, the U.S. has admitted about 125,000 refugees from Iraq since 2007. Individuals who were persecuted particularly because they had assisted the U.S. military were given high priority for resettlement. Christians (whether Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or some other Christian tradition) were also uniquely persecuted in many cases, and more than a third of Iraqis admitted for resettlement since 2007 were Christians, even though Christians made up only five percent of the Iraqi population prior to 2003.

From a larger perspective, though, I believe God is ultimately in control over who arrives in the States, whether as a refugee or any other category of immigrant. “From one man, he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:26–27).

In his sovereignty God might move one of his image-bearers halfway around the world so he or she can hear the hope of the gospel. He invites his church to join in that mission. Regrettably, according to LifeWay Research, less than half of U.S. Protestant churches are engaged in reaching and serving refugees or other immigrants, so the opportunity is much greater than is being realized. World Relief president Stephan Bauman has challenged every local church to welcome at least one refugee family, which I think would have remarkable gospel impact.

Paint a picture for us of what it would look like to see the church working together with World Relief to minister effectively to refugees.

World Relief’s mission is “to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable,” so local congregations are at the center of our strategy for holistically serving refugees at various points throughout this crisis. The vast majority of refugees from Syria are living in Turkey and Jordan; World Relief is on the ground in both locations, equipping churches to care for refugees, with a particular focus on children, who make up about half the refugees in the region.

In Germany, World Relief has been partnering with local churches to provide discipleship materials. Just as in the States, not every evangelical Christian in Germany has considered this situation from a biblical perspective, so we see providing that biblical foundation as a vital first step. We’re also exploring how we can mobilize churches to respond to the gaps in government-provided services for the incredible number of refugees arriving and expected to arrive in the coming months.

Finally, World Relief is one of nine organizations contracted by the federal government to help resettle refugees within the States. Our offices (in about 25 locations nationwide) receive word from the State Department that a refugee is arriving, and then we’re there to meet them at the airport—whenever possible, with a small group from a local church who, supported by World Relief staff, have committed to walking with them through at least the first several months after arrival. Together, we help refugees settle into an apartment, find jobs, learn English, understand American culture, enroll their kids in school, and integrate into our country. Eventually most are financially self-sufficient and don’t need much additional help, but we hope those church-based volunteers continue as friends indefinitely.

How can I get involved? What can I personally do?

  • Give: World Relief relies on financial support from churches and individuals to live out our mission, both internationally and in the States. Our U.S. programs also rely on donations of furniture and household items to set up apartments for refugees when they first arrive.
  • Go back to Scripture: The Evangelical Immigration Table has a bookmark with 40 Scripture passages related to immigration called the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, available for free download or purchase in printed form.
  • Raise Awareness: We’ve helped launch a website (WeWelcomeRefugees.com) with a number of resources, including a resource kit for churches and short video on this crisis.
  • Serve Locally: Find out if there’s a World Relief office in your community, and visit their website for church partnership and volunteer opportunities. If there’s not a World Relief office near you, another resettlement organization might be, and may have volunteer opportunities.
  • Advocate: Our ability to empower churches to serve refugees in the U.S. is limited by the number of refugees the government decides to admit. In 1980, that figure was above 200,000. We’re calling on the President and Congress to return to that level in light of the worst global refugee crisis since World War II. This tool will allow you to send a message to your elected officials.
  • Pray: We’ve developed a list of prayer points in partnership with others at #WeWelcomeRefugees.