6. A Church’s Journey with Refugees: From Sponsors to Friends to Advocates
PJR Vol. 2 2017, A Just Welcome
Claire McWilliams is an elder, worship planner, and refugee advocate at Loop Church in Chicago. By day, she is a financial auditor within the federal workforce.
Over the past year, my church community has been wrestling with a number of questions: How can God’s love overflow through our church into the city of Chicago and beyond? What is our collective calling and what is God’s vision for our church? A group of us embarked on a scriptural and practical study called Live Justly, which challenged us to think of biblical justice as a lifestyle. Ken Wytsma gives the following definition of justice:
To ‘do justice’ means to render to each what each is due. Justice involves harmony, flourishing, and fairness, and it is based on the image of God in every person – the Imago Dei – that grants all people inalienable dignity and infinite worth.[i]
Pursuing wholeness and flourishing, as God intended for creation, includes not only personal transformation, but also communal transformation. Wytsma further suggests that “true understanding of biblical justice drives us straight into the arms of mercy and grace.”[ii] To pursue justice, we must empty ourselves, be vulnerable, and be in relationships with marginalized persons. In those vulnerable places, we experience God’s mercy and grace, which we in turn must extend to those around us. As a church, we felt convicted to face outward more and live out our faith by sharing the love of God.
As we considered ways in which we could serve the community, the need for supporting refugees surfaced repeatedly –in our small group, in conversations with friends, in conferences, and in denominational advocacy efforts. Further research showed us that we are seeing the largest global displacement of persons in our lifetime. How could we not respond?
Through our denomination, we connected with a local refugee resettlement agency. Resettlement agencies are responsible for providing a basic level of care and support to refugees for the first few months after arrival. The agency helps with a variety of tasks, including securing housing, medical screenings, Social Security cards, school enrollment, English classes, job readiness, etc. While the resettlement agency assists refugees with many of their physical needs, cosponsors’ roles are more focused on emotional needs, functioning as teachers, advocates, and friends. We would help the family learn English. We would advocate for them within the community and to the resettlement agency. We would spend time getting to know them, extending to them a warm welcome and making their transition to a new country a little bit easier.
In faith, we decided that sponsoring a refugee family was a manageable but important way for our small congregation to extend hospitality and love to the stranger. We eagerly began preparations. The resettlement agency provided mentor training to prepare us for cultural differences and to give insight on how to help the family become self-sufficient. As cosponsors, we committed to welcoming them at the airport, raising $4,000-$8,000 in donations, preparing their first culturally appropriate meal, buying groceries for their first couple of weeks, and mentoring the family for their first six months.
Welcoming the Stranger
In early August, a group of us anxiously waited at O’Hare’s international terminal to meet the large Syrian family we would be welcoming. We brought welcome signs in Arabic, flowers for the mother, and stuffed animals for the kids. When the family emerged through customs with all of their earthly possessions, we could sense relief that they had finally made it to their new home. They thanked us profusely with their only English words and shook all of our hands. While we could not have conversations with them at this point, we could feel love and thankfulness. We hauled them and their luggage over to their new apartment where they would begin the process of settling into their new normal, a life in Chicago in which they could finally be settled and safe.
On our first visit, we were immediately welcomed to their table to share a meal with them. We barely knew each other. To converse, we relied heavily on Google Translate. Despite the language barrier, they were perfect models of love and hospitality. They taught us words in Arabic as we taught them words in English. We entered quickly into mutuality, a space in which we could both grow and learn from each other.
On subsequent visits, we have fallen into a routine together. After sharing a meal, they invite us into their living room where they offer us coffee and treats. We sit together, we practice English, and we share about our respective lives and cultures. While we expected relationships with our new refugee friends to be important, we could not have predicted how transformative those relationships would be.
Hearing Our Friends’ Stories
As they shared with us their story of fleeing a war-ravaged country, we learned that the family originally came from Homs, Syria, which has now been completely destroyed. In 2012, they walked for many hours at night across the Jordanian border with a baby, a toddler, and a four-year-old. They were “urban refugees” in Amman, Jordan, where they registered as refugees with the United Nations. They were then recommended for resettlement to the United States and went through the extreme vetting process, which Stina Kielsmeier-Cook discussed in an earlier article, involving multiple interviews, medical exams, and background checks. They were finally cleared to come to Chicago after four years of being displaced.
The father, Omar*, was a halal butcher in Syria. One of his first and greatest desires he expressed to us was to be working so that he could provide for his family again. We were ecstatic when we found out he started a job this January. Being able to provide for his family will help Omar regain a sense of human dignity. He works hard at learning English, but he indicates that he has a hard time retaining the language. On one of my visits, I told Omar that I was sorry to hear about the ongoing violence and war in Syria. When I told him I hoped the war would end, he expressed the opinion that it would not end unless Syria was completely destroyed. We both long for peace.
When the family arrived in August 2016, the mother, Naima*, was six months pregnant with her sixth child. Their youngest child was born in November and is the first US citizen of the family. Naima has so much love for her kids. They bring chaos and complete joy to their parents, and they have made the transition easier for the family. In public and when men are present, she is fully veiled, but even when only her eyes are visible, you can sense unconditional love for her family and friends.
The six kids range from ten years to six months old. The three oldest kids are in school and are eager to learn English. Naima told us that their school in Jordan was not good for the Syrian refugees because of discrimination. When we visit, the kids are like any other kids – they treat the apartment as their jungle gym, the boys pick on each other, and they are calmest when watching cartoons. With the new baby, the younger kids realized that it takes more to get their mother’s attention and will more quickly resort to screaming. We are thankful for each of them. They exemplify resilience in their ability to take life as it comes. They are a blessing to us and to their broader community.
Since that first awkward but jubilant encounter, we have moved from being cosponsors to being like family. We cry with them, and we laugh and celebrate with them. Our Syrian friends are an example of how mourning and dancing often happen concurrently. They made it to Chicago and have begun their new life. However, after the president’s Executive Order in January 2017 banning refugees from seven predominately Muslim countries, they wondered if they would be sent back to Syria. They showed us a video of the rubble that was once their home in Syria. While I told them they should be safe, I wept with them as I considered their relatives still waiting to be resettled. I told them that I loved them and would fight for them. They were afraid, but said they are used to displacement. They simply want safety for their family. Then our time together continued as usual with living, loving, playing, and showing hospitality as they do.
Hearing stories and forming intentional relationships with refugees creates true empathy. While empathy is not the end goal, it is a catalyst that carries us into action. Not only has our relationship with our Syrian friends shaped our view of refugees, it also has made the refugee crisis personal and spurs us on toward advocacy.
Advocating for our Brothers and Sisters
In a time of uncertainty surrounding US acceptance of refugees, Christians can find comfort and rest in God’s sovereignty. However, this is not an invitation into indifference or disengagement. Rather, this is a call to action. I believe government was ordained by God to do good, but because we live in a fallen world, we see personal and systemic breakdowns. We have the responsibility as Christian citizens to work through government to seek redemption of those systems in our pursuit of God’s kingdom, the return to a state of wholeness. When Christians advocate for and welcome refugees, we are a testament of our loving God to the world.
We must first be rooted in our faith and our church community, because sustained advocacy requires a firm foundation. We lament and grieve with the vulnerable. We pray for displaced people around the world. We pray for our policymakers. We encourage each other to speak out against injustice. In creating space for stories of refugees, we create awareness throughout our community. We partner with refugee resettlement agencies, and we continue welcoming and supporting refugees. In Advocating for Justice, the authors suggest, “not only can our experience inform our advocacy efforts but also, in a real sense, it must and will push us to speak in the public realm.”[iii]
Emboldened by our biblical call and personal relationships with refugees, Christians can partner with and support organizations that are advocating for refugees at a policy level. Through shared stories and relationships within local congregations, the local church can inform broader advocacy campaigns. For example, within my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), we have the Office of Social Justice that shares stories from local congregations and also provides resources and platforms that empower individuals to engage elected officials. Many refugees are not being heard in their communities and in government. Working within denominations or other faith-based advocacy organizations allows Christians to communally and effectively raise our voices with refugees, leveraging our privilege and influence to amplify their stories.
While our first languages may be different from refugees, love transcends language. We all need relationships. We all possess human dignity. We are all made in the image of God. Let’s have the courage to stand with refugees and enable their voices to be heard, extending the love of God and offering a reason for hope, as we pursue wholeness and the restoration of creation.
*The names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.
[i] Ken Wytsma, Pursuing Justice, Nashville: W Publishing, 2013.
[iii] Stephen Offutt, et al., Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.
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