by Rev. Al Tricarico, Associate General Secretary, Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (October 2016)
The following article appeared on pp. 12-13 of the October 2016 issue of New Horizons.
In July 2016, David Nakhla and I attended the annual Refugee Roundtable sponsored by the Refugee Highway Partnership of North America. Representatives from more than fifty churches and Christian agencies gathered in Toronto to discuss ministry in the present migrant crisis.
We learned about the many ways in which people are reaching out to refugees whose population worldwide is large and rapidly growing. Currently there are 65 million, and the number is rising at a rate of over 30,000 souls per day. One out of every 113 people living on this planet is displaced. One Christian leader observed that if the Syrian refugee crisis were to take place proportionally in the U.S., the entire population west of Ohio would flee from their homes.
About two-thirds of the 65 million are internally displaced. Some of the others have found their way to North America. One result of this is a growing intersection between home missions and foreign missions. The nations are coming to us. We should be ready to receive them, serve them, and bring the gospel to them.
A wide range of activities was represented at the conference, from the operation of refugee houses and resettlement processing to stand-by services ready to collect people from the airport when needed. We were amazed at the number of Christians actively involved in ministry to refugees. And we were pleased to observe that all of the participants were committed to serve with a focus on gospel witness.
The Call to Love
We are called by Christ to love as he loves, and to love all people—those who are in the household of faith and those who are not. We are to identify with them and do good to them (Gal. 6:10).
At the last judgment, love will be tested. The goats will hear the rebuke of Jesus, who will expose their failure to feed and satisfy the thirst of the needy, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and serve those in prison. The sheep will receive the approval of Jesus, who accepts the love delivered to others as love directed toward him. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
Among the commended acts of love is welcoming the stranger (Matt. 25:35). A person who welcomes the stranger, welcomes Jesus. The current migrant crisis provides many opportunities to welcome Jesus in this way.
While the king’s brothers (believers) are in view in verse 40, there is no reason to think that Jesus means for us to exclude a broader reach. He wants us to love all people (Luke 6:35). We have been rescued from stranger status and have been welcomed by Jesus into the home of his Father. Let’s remember that and gladly welcome strangers.
We should also keep in mind that while we are to love all people, there is a special household love that applies to the present crisis, in which many displaced people are fleeing persecution because of their Christian faith. They are the king’s brothers.
And think about God’s love for the sojourner as you consider how you might deliver that same love. Why should we so love? Because we were sojourners, enslaved to sin and in need of the grace of God (Deut. 10:17–19; 15:11; Lev. 19:33–34).
These great realities (God’s love for the stranger, along with our duty to love Christ by welcoming strangers) beckon us to engage with special interest at this moment when opportunities to serve refugees are on the increase.
How to Engage
There are many ways to welcome strangers, from a handshake and smile when meeting one, to full-throttle engagement in the resettlement process. While we can’t all do everything, it is good to do something. Those who want to do something can consider the following suggestions, beginning with some self-reflection.
Deal with your fears. Most honest people will admit to feeling some uneasiness when it comes to interacting with people from other cultures. We need to identify our fears, repent of them, and start loving our guests. Test yourself the next time you see a woman wearing a burka or hijab. What is your immediate response? Do you look away? Do you speed up your step? It may not be a moment to engage with substance, but your smile or greeting may be the first positive attention that person receives that day.
Refugees are not terrorists. While it is possible that someone you meet may wish you harm, it is unlikely. It is also irrelevant. There are no exceptions to the command to love, and Jesus never promised that love would be risk-free. It wasn’t for him, and it isn’t for us. Most refugees are positive souls who want to live at peace and provide for their families. The spirit God gives us is one of power and love, not fear (2 Tim. 1:17).
Be a good neighbor. A lawyer once asked Jesus a good question with a bad motive. “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ ” It was a question that Jesus did not answer, at least not directly. His response was the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37).
The Samaritan saw a beaten victim and delivered the needed help that was not given by those who knew better. He found a neighbor in need, had pity on him, and generously gave of himself to bring healing. But at the end Jesus suggested that the lawyer really asked the wrong question.
The direct answer is obvious. All people are our neighbors. Our duty is to love God and to love everyone. But there is a deeper question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” asked the master. The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:36-37). Let’s not ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” We know that answer. Let’s ask, “How can I be a good neighbor to those I am called to love?”
Let’s have compassion on those who suffer, with a view toward doing good to them in Christ’s name. Many are the suffering strangers in our midst. And if we think deeply and pray in faith, we might just discover ways to live beyond ourselves in love. A greeting, a conversation, an offer of friendship, an expression of thanks, a meal at our home, an invitation to church, a loving gospel word. These may not seem profoundly merciful, but they are acts of love to bruised people who likely feel very unloved.
Visit ministries dedicated to immigrant and refugee outreach. Once back from Toronto, I learned through minimal effort that there are many ministries in and around Philadelphia that are actively involved with outreach to refugees and immigrants. Northeast Community Church (PCA) is a good example.
Northeast Community Church (NCC) runs a successful ESL program. In addition to teaching English to the nations, they offer other opportunities to reach out to immigrants and refugees with the gospel. One is a ministry called Conversation Café, a regularly scheduled event where students are invited to come to the church for refreshments and to practice their English.
NCC welcomes volunteers to the café to mingle with the students. Friendships are forged through this ministry, and opportunities for witness naturally emerge. Any Christian can participate and offer a welcoming hand to the strangers of Philadelphia.
Discover needs that you can meet and be ready to meet them. There is a ministry in Worcester, Massachusetts, called WARM (Worcester Alliance for Refugee Ministry).WARM’s small staff stands available to assist larger religious or governmental agencies. They do what needs to be done within their limited capacities. They visit newcomers, cook meals, and provide friendship. The ministry’s director is currently teaching a young refugee how to drive a car. Surprisingly, one of their most fruitful ministries is airport pick-up. They find out who is coming and when they are landing. They collect them and take them to their temporary residence.
It may seem like a small gesture, but a simple welcome and car ride can make an enormous difference in the life of a newcomer. David and I heard the testimony of a certain refugee from Cameroon. She identified two expressions of kindness that brought healing to her soul. One was the provision of time and space to decompress after her long and stressful journey from Africa. A ministry called Matthew House hosted her. She was given a clean, quiet room and offered as much rest and food as she needed until she was ready to start ordering her life. A comfortable bed, an open fridge, and plenty of time. Just right!
But the first thing she mentioned was the love she felt through someone coming to the airport who knew her name. She mentioned it in her testimony, and when David and I spoke with her afterwards, she said it again. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Imagine coming to an unfamiliar place with no sense of how to manage life. What a difference it can make to receive a warm, familiar greeting. “They even knew my name!” she said.
Her name is Maria. She now serves on the Matthew House board of directors.
Be hospitable. This is a command of Scripture. We are to be hospitable in the church, for sure (Rom. 12:13). But the word itself contemplates the welcoming of strangers. You can welcome them first with a greeting, then a conversation, and then a meal in your home. It will make an enormous impact on them. There are people who are so marginalized that your friendly efforts may be the first they have ever received. I have heard stories to back this up. “I have lived here for years and have never been invited to someone’s home.” Or, “Thank you for talking to me. No one ever talks to me.”
Ask questions about family. Family history is very important to people in other cultures. They love to talk about their origins and relations. Show your interest in their personal history and you will have a friend. Tell them about yours as well.
Take your time, but be intentional about gospel witness. Immigrants and refugees expect people to speak about their faith. Those who believe in something ought to speak openly about what they believe. That is their view. So let’s share freely with prayer for a harvest of souls for Christ.
A friend gave me this statement about personal witness: “It is ordinary people, doing ordinary things, with gospel intentionality.” That is a good statement that applies to all of our interactions. And it is an especially helpful statement to those who want to reach out to strangers. Be a friend. Ask questions. Listen to stories. Share a gospel word. Bring new friends to a spiritual Sabbath feast and introduce them to your Father and to your family. This is positive Christian witness, I believe.
Click here for the PDF version of the October 2016 issue of New Horizons at OPC.org. This article appears on pp. 12-13.