Refugee resettlement offers ministry opportunities

  |  Source: Baptist Press

Connie Swicegood leads one of the International Friends beginning conversation classes at First Baptist Church in Amarillo. While the coronavirus pandemic cut short this year’s spring semester, plans are under way to launch ESL fall classes next month over Zoom. (WMU photo by Pam Henderson)

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WASHINGTON (BP)—The decision to increase dramatically the number of refugees to be welcomed into the United States will provide Christians important opportunities for gospel witness and service to those fleeing oppression, some Baptist leaders said.

President Biden announced Feb. 4 he would raise the ceiling for refugees to 125,000 in the federal fiscal year that will begin in October and issued an executive order designed to rebuild the resettlement program.

The president, as well as agencies that help resettle refugees in this country, acknowledged the rebuilding process will take time. The new cap far surpasses the ceiling of 15,000 set by the Trump administration during its final year.

The church’s role: ‘Show the love of Christ’

“It’s the government’s role to determine the immigration and refugee resettlement policy for our nation,” said Bryant Wright, president of Send Relief. “It’s the church’s role to show the love of Christ in hopes that their hearts will be open to receiving the greatest expression of God’s love through salvation in Jesus Christ.”

Send Relief is the Southern Baptist Convention’s compassion ministry performed through the cooperative effort of the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. Care for refugees is one of Send Relief’s focus areas.

“Jesus commanded the church to go and take the gospel to the nations,” said Wright, a former SBC president. “So, when the nations come to where we live in the United States, what an opportunity that God is giving the church to show Christ’s love.”

Through the work of indigenous church planters and in partnership with the Karen Baptist Convention and other regional Baptist groups, Greater Houston Burmese Christian Fellowship has continued its ministry to internally displaced people and refugees in Myanmar, even when COVID-19 prohibited international travel. (Photo courtesy of Greater Houston Burmese Christian Fellowship)

Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he prays Christians “will lead the revitalization of America’s commitment to be a beacon of freedom and safe harbor for the oppressed and persecuted.”

“Our advocacy for religious minorities in peril around the world, whether they be Uyghurs in China or Christians in Syria, is a priority of our work at the ERLC,” said Moore, who expressed his gratitude for Biden’s actions. “Now is the time to rebuild America’s refugee resettlement program. … I urge the administration to take the next step and officially raise the refugee ceiling.”

The newly announced refugee cap follows four years of record-low ceilings established by President Trump—from 45,000 in the 2018 fiscal year to 30,000 in 2019 to 18,000 in 2020 and 15,000 in the current year. In the 10 years prior, the United States welcomed an average of about 67,000 refugees each year, according to the Pew Research Center.

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The number of admissions often is less than the ceiling. The record high for the cap and admissions is 232,000 and 207,000, respectively, in 1980, Pew reported.

Global increase in refugee population

The United States’ reduction in the ceiling has come at a time when strife in multiple countries has resulted in massive numbers of refugees. As of mid-2020, an estimated 26.3 million people were considered refugees, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 80 million people, including 30 to 34 million children, were forcibly displaced, the UN reported.

More than 60 percent of refugees—as well as Venezuelans who were displaced abroad—were from five countries. In addition to Venezuela (3.7 million people), they were the Syrian Arab Republic (6.6 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.3 million) and Myanmar (1 million).

The United Nations has defined a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to its 1951 Refugee Convention.

Refugees must pass a stringent screening process that includes multiple biometric and biographic checks and an interview before being eligible to enter the United States, according to 2020 guidelines by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The processing time before refugees enter this country averages 18 months to three years, the Christian humanitarian organization World Relief reported.

Baptists have history of ministry to refugees

The Southern Baptist history of ministering to people fleeing to the United States includes the sponsoring of nearly 15,000 refugees from 1975 to 1985, which resulted in the planting of more than 280 ethnic churches, according to a resolution approved by messengers to the 2016 SBC annual meeting.

The 2019 back-to-school event in Clarkston, Ga., is one example of the kinds of projects Send Relief carries out to serve refugee families. Caring for refugees is one of Send Relief’s focus areas for compassion ministry. (BP Photo)

Send Relief served 13,933 people in its work with refugees and internationals in North America in 2020. It mobilized more than 850 people to serve in refugee ministry. Those numbers do not include overseas work with refugees.

Southern Baptists in Montgomery, Ala., are among those who serve refugees. Montgomery Baptist Association collaborates with First Baptist Church in Montgomery to minister to 250 to 300 international families, including refugees, from 42 countries, said Susan West, director of the association’s conversational English ministry. More than 30 churches participate in the ministry, and others support the work financially.

During the 2019-20 school year, the ministry served 13 refugee households before the COVID-19 pandemic, West said. It has ministered to at least six refugee families this school year. The refugees during these two years have come from three continents, she said.

“As followers of Jesus, we are called to welcome the strangers among us,” West said in an email interview. “No passport is needed to do the Great Commission in our own neighborhoods. The world is here.”

The practical ministry to refugees and other internationals includes English classes, as well as preschool childcare and transportation to the classes for many families, West said. It also consists of a citizenship class, the opportunity to grow food in a community garden and trips to museums and other local sites. The volunteers also accompany families to medical appointments and parent conferences at school as requested. They cook and eat with the refugees and other internationals and otherwise spend time developing relationships, she said.

Each family is offered a Bible in its “heart language,” and each child receives a copy of the Jesus Storybook Bible. Their reading of the Bible prompts questions of the volunteers, West said.

Literacy ministries open doors

lester meriwether200
Lester Meriwether

Lester Meriwether, executive director of Literacy Connexus, agreed English-as-a-Second-Language classes and other literacy ministries help churches establish relationships that open doors to ministry and Christian witness.

While it will take refugee resettlement agencies time to rebuild the infrastructure lost in the past four years, churches can begin now to prepare for ministry to refugees in the months and years ahead, Meriwether asserted.

He suggested practical steps to take now:

  • Foster understanding. Issues related to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers have become politicized in recent years, he observed. The political climate has made some pastors reluctant to support ministry to those groups because they are fearful of creating congregational division and conflict, he added. Focus on clear needs, such as reading readiness programs from preschool children from non-English-speaking families. “Trust the lay people,” Meriwether said. “When they see the needs, they will respond.”
  • Learn from other churches. Look at success stories. Some Texas Baptist churches have been involved for decades in ministry to internationals in general and new arrivals in particular. ESL classes often have been starting points for other ministries such as cooking classes, sewing circles, Bible studies and other programs. “Once a church reaches out to people with classes in English proficiency, ministry can go many different directions,” he said.
  • Train volunteers. Literacy Connexus typically trains about 300 volunteers a year in ESL instruction, but it had to suspend training events for the past year to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, plans are in place to resume in-person training—as well as teleconferences—in upcoming months.

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With additional reporting by Managing Editor Ken Camp. 

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