OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries

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Is it Safe for Christians to Refuse to Welcome the Stranger?

by Rev. Chris Cashen
Pastor, Trinity Reformed Church in Lanham, Maryland and
Chairman of the Refugee Ministry Subcommittee

A little over two weeks ago, on May 3, 2021, President Biden raised the 2021 cap on refugee resettlements in the United States fourfold: from 15,000 to 62,500. As he did so, the president stated that the previous limit “did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees.” In the same statement, President Biden indicated that he would set the refugee admission cap at 125,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins this year on October 1st. Shortly after President Biden’s statements, Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, declared that “It is in our DNA as a nation to open our door to those seeking refuge[1] . . .”

What does this mean? Who are these refugees? And how are we to respond? All good questions which require thoughtful answers.

Each year, the president sets a limit on the number of refugees allowed to resettle in this country. This means that the Executive has determined, for planning and budgeting purposes, that the United States will agree to grant permission (or immigration status) for that number of “refugees” to enter the country legally. It does not necessarily mean that the entire number will actually enter the US. But it gives the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), those folks who are involved in refugee resettlement in this country, the ability to plan, budget and prepare. This is a bit like creating an annual budget for your local church. You plan, or budget, to spend a certain amount on electrical service, but if the summer is not too hot, you may not spend all the budgeted amount. It is the same with the refugee admissions cap. The country has agreed to allow up to 62,500 refugees to enter, but it may not (and probably will not) receive that number as there are many factors which enter into resettling a person or family from a foreign country.

Who are these refugees? There is a legal definition of “refugee” which is helpful to know. In 1951, the United Nations resolved to adopt the following definition of a “refugee” as any person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” That is the short version. In plain English, a “refugee” is a person who, because of his race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion, has been persecuted or is reasonably fearful of being persecuted; has left his home country (crossed a border), and is afraid to return home because he thinks that there will be no safety or peace for him there (that is, his homeland government won’t or can’t protect him). That definition is somewhat sterile.

The UNHCR website is currently reporting that there are 45,449 refugees from the Tigray region in Ethiopia who have fled the violence and fighting and entered a neighboring country: Sudan.  An Ethiopian woman, now a refugee in Sudan describes the horrific conditions she escaped, “We did not know what was going on when we heard the gun shots. Many people were killed—we could see 10, twenty bodies lying on the ground. That’s when we decided to leave. I walked until my legs were injured and bleeding. I thank God that we are safe here and we have something to eat.[2]” There are refugees from Syria due to civil war; there are refugees from Eritrea due to the persecution of Christians; there are refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo due to violence, war, and political opinion. The stories are different, but the human suffering and the material needs are similar. And all of them need Christ.

Is it safe for our families, you may be asking. Is it safe to help those coming to this country legally as persecuted, homeless, weary, refuge seekers? Deep down, you know the answer—only God knows. But let’s consider “Jonas”, a fictional man living in a fictional refugee camp in Tentland, Africa. Jonas must be interviewed and screened by the United Nations in order to be titled, or classified, as a “refugee”. Jonas has to meet the legal definition. After the UN has completed their screening, they look for a willing country to host Jonas. If the US raises its hand and agrees to consider accepting Jonas, it will conduct its own background check before giving Jonas a ticket to enter the country. By the time Jonas arrives at the airport here in the US, he will have been interviewed by the Department of State, registered in the Worldwide Refugee Admission Processing System, checked by FBI, Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Defense, and interviewed by Department of Homeland Security. Jonas will also have his fingerprints taken and have his biometrics screened against several databases. Only after all this vetting is complete to the satisfaction of these agencies, will Jonas be permitted to enter the country and be resettled as a refugee. The better question may be, “Is it safe for Christians to avoid or refuse to welcome the stranger and alien?”

That brings us back to the words of the President and Secretary of State. Think of this—these men, possibly very secular in their worldviews—surprisingly use words we might consider using ourselves. Christians are a people called to welcome and love the alien and stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19). Followers of the Lord Jesus Christ have taken refuge in Him from their sin and the tribulation of this world. Shouldn’t we desire to usher others into that very same refuge—indeed, the only true refuge from the storms that our sins have created?


[1] Steve Harman, “Biden to Quadruple Number of Refugees,” Voice of America News, May 3, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/biden-quadruple-number-refugees-allowed-us.

[2] Ibid.


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Who Helps the Local Deacon?

You probably wouldn’t have to go far to find a deacon who sometimes feels overloaded. The range of diaconal duties can be overwhelming, even for a seasoned, well-experienced deacon. Why? Well, it may have to do with why he accepted the call in the first place.

For a deacon, it probably started with a need. A need that raised him from his chair and put him into action. Deacons care. Maybe it started with him helping to distribute flyers for Vacation Bible School. Maybe he saw that elderly woman who needed help to her pew. Or maybe he saw the same guy doing “everything” behind the scenes and it caused him to say, “I can probably help.” A deacon is one who has a heart for helping where help is needed.

So, who takes care of the local deacon when he is over-taxed, and needs help or advice himself? With the same desire that a deacon has to fulfill a need in his congregation, the men of the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries desire to serve the local deacon, in the midst of his load.

The OPC diaconate is a group of over 800 men! Imagine the blessing to a deacon if he had someone to pray with or with whom he could share burdens or a quick phone call for advice? Maybe he just needs to be encouraged by someone who knows what he’s going through. Some deacons are the lone deacon in a small congregation; others are a member of a large diaconal board.  Either way they are a part of a much larger support system—men who are often balancing similar types of loads.

If you are a deacon, you might be saying, “Well, I’m really not feeling that. Praise the Lord, things are kind of low-key right now and I don’t really feel over-burdened.” Ok, but what if you could be the load-lifter for another deacon?

With the postponement of the National Diaconal Summit to 2022, the Committee on Diaconal Ministries is offering an online event that won’t replace being together in Chicago in June, but just might be the most encouraging Zoom call you have during COVID. Fellowship, encouragement, and equipping each other, even if you’re miles apart. 
 
Deacons deal with the same questions and the same situations, yet often feel like they are on their own. The CDM wants to connect more of the 800 men more often, and that can’t wait until the summer 2022. Strength and encouragement for our deacons can’t wait another year until we can meet. 

So, why is the CDM event, “Continuing the Conversation”, so important? Deacons need a place to talk. Deacons need a place and a way to support each other. COVID has challenged that. “CtC” is our answer. Join us. We’ll talk, pray, encourage and make plans to do that more often and in different ways.

There are already 66 men registered to be on the call. If you are a deacon and have not yet committed to this 90-minute event on June 12th, please do so now. It will take you just two minutes to register. Go to: OPCCDM.org/continuing-the-conversation.


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Ministering to Body and Soul

When Pastor Melaku Solomon Tamirat arrived in this country with his two sons in April 2019 to join his wife, Meron, he had already been serving for 20 years as a pastor in the Reformed Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ethiopia. He had known ROPC pastor, Zecharias Weldeyesus, since they had met at a church conference in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2005, and the latter soon engaged Melaku in helping with ROPC’s ministry to refugees in Clarkston (recently named Redeemer Mercy Ministry).

When Pastor Chris Cashen left the position as leader of ROPC’s work in Clarkston in August 2020, Melaku stepped into this role in a provisional capacity. ROPC members recently voted to call him to this position, which will be become official, says Zaki, once Melaku passes upcoming OPC committee and presbytery exams. With a bachelor’s degree in theology, Melaku has completed an English course here and is currently taking additional theology courses at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, SC, to satisfy the Presbytery requirement for transfer of his credentials.

Melaku did not begin his career as an adherent to Reformed theology. He grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which taught that there are many ways to salvation, numerous mediators in addition to Jesus, and sacred texts outside the Bible. “I read the Bible—specifically, Acts 4:12, John 14:6, and John 17:3—and saw that it said salvation is through Jesus,” he says. When he began teaching this truth in his church’s youth group, the church wanted him out, despite the fact that many were converted.

After reading and understanding a book of systematic theology translated into Amharic by a pastor in Virginia, Melaku says he accepted the Reformed faith, attended seminary through distance learning, passed the exam, and was ordained by OPC missionaries.

Since then, he worked in church planting, helping grow 13 churches throughout Ethiopia, with many people being converted to Christ.

When Melaku arrived in the U.S. with sons Nathan (14) and Japheth (10), he had seen his wife only once since 2013, when she fled Ethiopia to escape being arrested as a result of conflict among three competing ethnic groups, the Oromo, Amhara, and Tigray. Here in the U.S., he says, this conflict among the three groups is moot—”the three tribes worship together, no problem.” But back there at that time, the TPLF government (Tigray group in power at that time) tried to attack Meron’s father and arrest Meron when she wouldn’t relinquish her father’s family home. They ended up taking it by force, and her father had to move in with other family members.

Meron has since acquired her green card in this country, and Melaku and their children are on track to do so as well, with the ultimate goal of becoming U.S. citizens.

In his role at Redeemer Mercy Ministry, Melaku leads Bible studies on Saturday evenings from 6:00 to 8:00 in Zaki’s home and on Zoom in Amharic on Friday nights from 7:30 to 8:30, in addition to a YouTube ministry. He has a good relationship with the local Ethiopian church community and has preached numerous times in local churches in Lilburn and Stone Mountain as well as to more distant churches by Zoom, in Virginia and even Norway. He works with local churches to identify refugees in need of food from ROPC’s resources. And he recently started a counseling service for refugees via cell phone.

Looking ahead to the time post-pandemic when in-person Bible studies can again be held in ROPC’s rental unit at Brentwood Apartments in Decatur, Melaku has written a plan for Redeemer Mercy Ministry, which includes ESL classes. “Most refugees’ biggest problem is English,” he says. He wants to offer English tutoring using the Bible as a teaching tool, thereby pursuing two goals at once. And he has plans for a literature ministry, including producing a tract in Amharic with his contact information.

What are the ministry’s needs, going forward? “We need volunteers to teach English to adult refugees and prayer that Covid 19 would go away and in-person activities would resume.”


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