Refugee Ministry Part 4: A Step by Step Guide to Beginning Refugee Ministry

By Rev. Chris Cashen, pastor, Trinity Reformed OPC, Lanham, MD & Chairman, CDM Refugee Ministry Subcommittee

WARNING: The following is a step-by-step instruction guide. Much like what is placed in those boxes which contain an unassembled bicycle. Many who approach such a task, especially men (maybe even most especially deacons), will purposefully NOT read the “how to” instructions. Some even take pride assembling on their own and boasting later that they did it without looking at the step-by-step guide. You have been warned; one of those guides follows. Proceed at your own risk . . . in reading it, you may learn how to begin a ministry of mercy to refugees!

So, you want to start helping refugees. You have been listening to the news and have seen those from Afghanistan in need of mercy. You have seen the pictures of people, babies, young girls, old men, pregnant women, suffering as they fled their country, their homes. Your heart has broken over the underlying sin and evil, and you want to show the love of Christ. The only problem is that you do not know where to start, how to begin. Perfect. The following is a step-by-step guide or instruction booklet; a “how-to” manual for those who want to begin ministering to refugees. There are seven steps. So, let’s jump in . . .

Step 1: Congratulations! You just accomplished Step 1. Getting past the WARNING and starting to read this article means that you have already developed a “desire” to serve the stranger, the alien, the refugee. But before you move on to Step 2, know that this desire to serve is the backbone of several of the following steps.  Ministering to refugees is a long-term ministry. Unlike helping your neighbor fix his fence on a Saturday afternoon, the help a refugee needs will be varied, and span months, even years. Like anything else, interest in serving these needy foreigners may wane if there is not a true desire in your heart. And refugee ministry, like any other ministry which involves people (i.e., sinners), will include days when you are thinking to yourself, “It’s hard to love this person!” So as Jesus Christ held tightly to His desire to do the will of His Father as He was loving the unlovable, hold on tightly to your desire to serve the stranger.

Step 2: Training. Every worthwhile ministry requires training, right? Not necessarily. Meeting someone at the airport, helping a non-English speaking child with elementary school homework or grocery shopping for an African who has never seen an American supermarket—are basic American skills. Refugee ministry is FULL of these kinds of services, which need no special training, just the love of Christ. Certainly, becoming familiar with the plight of refugees (see example here[1]) or the path they have taken to get to the United States (see examples here[2]) will be valuable in preparing your heart and mind to serve these dear friends. Learning some words of their native tongue will also go a long way in establishing your relationship and bond. And if you were interested in helping with immigration forms (a great need for refugees), some training would be necessary (contact Pastor Chris Cashen).

However, before you run on to Step 3, there is one “training” or preparation activity that should be diligently pursued: prayer. You must pray. Ministering to refugees is a blessing, but like any other work of mercy, it must be bathed in prayer. Prayer that the Lord Jesus Christ would be exalted. Prayer that as you spend time with new friends from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Myanmar, that you would be the light of Jesus to them. Pray for God’s perfect provisions to be poured out according to His will, and that He would receive all the glory. Yes, prayer is the best training.

Step 3:  This might be the hardest step. Step 3 is to find a refugee to serve. In a sense, this is where the ministry begins. Like writing an English literature paper where the most difficult sentence to write is the first, Step 3, or finding a refugee to serve, may be the hardest part. To minister mercy to a refugee, you must first know a refugee. To know a refugee, you must first meet a refugee. The problem is that refugees are not issued name tags when they enter the US. None of them have “REFUGEE” stamped on their foreheads. While this may be the most difficult step of the seven, the good news is that there are people out there ready to help you meet refugees. They are called “resettlement agencies.” National “resettlement agencies,” with various offices throughout the country, work directly with government to begin the resettlement process. There are nine resettlement agencies in the United States (you can find a list here[3]). These agencies do a lot of the heavy lifting of resettlement: finding apartments, employment, schools, English classes, medical and dental professionals, and much more. In addition to resettlement agencies, in certain localities there are other organizations which provide various aid to refugees.

Resettlement agencies and these other local organizations need help . . . a lot of it. They need volunteers to jump in and assist them in serving refugees. So much so that volunteerism is your door to meeting refugees. Volunteering with a resettlement agency or local organization is a simple and guaranteed way of meeting refugees. One way to find one of those nine resettlement agencies, or other refugee aid organization, in your area, is the internet. Try entering “resettle refugee” or “help refugees” along with your city and state (e.g., “resettle refugees Denver CO”), in your internet browser search box. You might also email or call your local county or city government offices and ask for the department which oversees refugee resettlement. If one exists, they will likely have a list of those organizations serving refugees in your community.

If you live in a larger metropolitan area where there are many refugees living in close quarters, there will likely be organizations, churches or NGOs (non-governmental organizations), offering English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Those that are providing classes are usually looking for people to volunteer to help teach, or just enter into conversations with those who do not speak English as their native tongue. This is a convenient way to meet refugees and a great way to establish relationships which grow over time.

Step 4: Now that you have met a refugee, what do you do? Practical things like helping to set up an apartment, teaching the use of an oven or thermostat, shopping, providing clothing, and offering transportation for appointments to doctors, dentists or the social security office – all essential. But be sure to be a friend. You don’t need to always do. Take the time to listen and interact. Serving in refugee ministry takes time, but perhaps not in the way you might think. To serve refugees, you need to fully understand the varied understanding of time. American time is much different than African time, or Syrian time, or “pick any other country than the United States” time. It’s not even spelled the same way. In America, time pursues us on our wrists and on our smartphones. We are constantly aware of time. It tells us when to go, when to arrive and when to leave. But you need to realize that almost none of the refugees you serve will understand the American version of time—and they really don’t want to. To those from the Middle East, from Africa, from even Central America, time is different. Time does not direct their day. Relationships do. 

Think of the disciples. Their understanding of time was very different from Jesus’. The disciples didn’t think that there was enough time to feed those 5,000 people. It was about to get dark. So as the disciples focused upon the time, they told Jesus to send them away: “Send the crowd away . . . for here we are in a desolate place!” (Luke 9:12). But Jesus had them sit down and He fed them. All of them. Jesus wasn’t focused on time, but on serving and loving the people. As you serve refugees, Step 4 is to enjoy establishing that relationship which will come to govern your interaction.

Step 5: Now that you are in the middle of serving, what’s next? Step 5 is food for the soul! Give them nourishment! As stated above, refugee ministry is relational. It is nothing if it is not relational. Through your interactions over time, through the mercy being poured out, you will establish a relationship. Building trust is essential if those to whom you are ministering are to receive the Word of God and, hopefully, believe the words that you speak to them. As these relationships grow, along with these deeds of mercy that you are pouring out, give them the very word of God—true nourishment. Of course, you don’t need to wait to Step 5 to give your new refugee friend the reason for the hope that lies within you. And, if you are not careful, the physical part of this mercy ministry can easily become the only aspect of your ministry. The physical mercy ministry is important, but remember, Jesus called His disciples to feed the 5,000. The physical ministry should never become the main target. Jesus used the stomach to get to the heart, and that is your aim[4]as you minister to refugees.

Step 6:  Receive blessings. What? Yes . . . this next-to-last step is to receive blessings—many blessings. You may have thought that refugee ministry was only about the refugees. But this ministry is also about you. This ministry is all about how God changes you. It is about how God works in your heart. It is about how God reveals to you things which were deep in your heart, which were unknown and undetected until you engaged in ministry to refugees. Yes, this Step 6 is big. You recognize that you are the one who has been blessed in so many ways as the Spirit has poured out grace upon you, given you the desire to follow after Jesus Christ, and allowed you to see how Jesus has served you, and ministered to you—a stranger to Him.

Step 7 (praise God). The final step, or Step 7 is to praise God! 

Now that you have read this short step-by-step guide to beginning your own refugee ministry, please know that the full step-by-step guide is actually contained in two volumes. The first is called the Old Testament and the second is called the New. In this two-volume set, the Lord Jesus Christ not only gives us the original step-by-step guide to loving your neighbor, but also gives us many excellent examples of how He ministered to strangers and aliens and how He loved the unlovables (such as you and me!). Use the above seven step guide only after you’ve gone through the two-volume set, the original guide to loving your neighbor. Praise be to God.


[1] Incitement.com [Incitement]. 2021, June 16. World Refugee Day: The Worst 10 Refugee Crises in 2021; YouTube. {https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miK22Hsan5o}

[2] World Relief; 2021, October 27; {https://worldrelief.org/category/stories/}

[3] The UN Refugee Agency; United States Resettlement Partners, {https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/us-resettlement-partners.html}

[4] Capill, Murray; The Heart is the Target: Preaching Practical Application from Every Text; P & R Publishing; 2014, April 28.


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Refugee Ministry Part 3:What Will We Lose by Inviting Refugees to our Dinner Table?

 

by Chris Cashen
Pastor, Trinity Reformed OPC, Lanham, Maryland and
Chairman of the Refugee Ministry Subcommittee

Ministering to refugees is an eye and heart opening experience, because the work is very personal. Consider the hospitality practices of those who have fled from Syria and Afghanistan. Their doors are always open, regardless of what they have (or don’t have) to offer. Tea or coffee is prepared and served, usually along with nuts, dates, or candies; a comfortable seat is offered, as is their time and attention. Even though Americans are strangers to them, and different languages are spoken, their welcome is immediate, warm, and sincere. That is their culture and tradition, all brought with them. It is so foreign to our Western – even Christian – culture, that it cannot help but touch the heart.

More refugees from Afghanistan may be on their way to the United States soon. Over the past week, incredible photographs of US Air Force cargo planes loaded with Afghans have shocked wide-eyed Americans. Videos have played again and again on our televisions and computer screens of innumerable men, women and children running alongside military aircraft as they taxi for take-off at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They are fleeing their homes and country, seeking peace, refuge, and safety. NBC News quoted Utah’s Governor Cox on August 18, 2021, “We understand the pain caused by forced migration and appreciate the contributions of refugees in our communities.” The story went further to report that Utah was “offering to assist with the resettlement of individuals and families fleeing Afghanistan.’”[1]

The secular, civil government is holding out a hand to those who will become strangers and aliens here. What about the church? What responsibility, if any, does the church have in helping refugees resettle? Should the church be involved? Does the church have a role? Is there a scriptural basis for the church to enter this arena? Or, as some believe, is the resettlement of refugees, including Afghans, a bad idea? Some of the more “conservative” political commentators are warning against receiving Afghan refugees. Their position might be restated to their audience as a question: “Have you considered what we will lose if the US allows this many refugees to enter our country?”

The reality is that the church, as an institution, has no say over who the United States will admit as a refugee. That decision will be made by the current administration, which sets a cap on those admitted; Congress, which funds; and other government agencies which vet possible refugees. The only decision for the church is whether to, once they become refugees, welcome them immediately, warmly, and sincerely, in Christ’s love.

As Christians investigate whether to engage in mercy ministry to refugees, Scripture must direct and guide as it is the only rule for faith and life. The Old Testament has many passages concerning the alien, the stranger, and the sojourner.[2] Several of these verses are proof that the people of God were called to welcome and care for the refugee (stranger). In many of these passages, the Lord reminds His people that they were strangers in Egypt. In fact, this appears to be the primary foundation for loving the stranger. Leviticus 19 contains one such verse: ”You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34 ESV). Why? Why would the Lord direct the Israelites to think upon their forefathers’ time in Egypt as a reason to love strangers in their midst? It certainly cannot be because the Israelites were well-loved; the Egyptians enslaved and oppressed them. But in the midst of that enslavement and oppression, in the midst of that “strangerhood,” the Lord Himself cared for them. As aliens and strangers entering the promised land, the people of God were called to remember the way in which the Lord watched over them and lovingly provided for them in a place which was not their home.

This might cause us to think upon our status as strangers upon this earth. The Christian’s citizenship is in heaven. Yet, the living God continues to watch over, care for and love His children. And remember, there was a time when we were strangers to God. It was then, in that stranger estate that He sent His only eternally begotten Son to die in our place. Hear that again: God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus, to die in the place of strangers – all those who were, at the time, alienated from Him. Thus, the call to love the stranger among us—just as Jesus loved and loves us—holds true today.

Leviticus 19 is certainly a powerful and applicable passage for us to meditate upon as we consider our response to Afghan refugees. The New Testament also offers applicable verses which might help us determine our response. We can always meditate upon the second great commandment to love our neighbor. In the parable of the “Good Samaritan”, Jesus Christ put to rest the idea that our neighbors are only of a certain class or segment of the population in parable of the “Good Samaritan”. Certainly, that command is the umbrella under which not only receiving but serving refugees fits. It provides us with much guidance as to how we are to love those strangers in our midst—those who have lost everything.

But let’s go a bit deeper. In Luke’s gospel, we read, “When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you will be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14 ESV). The teaching in this passages seems to begin at Luke 14:1 where Jesus deals with serving others in mercy on the Sabbath and sitting in the right seat at the wedding feast. The collective teaching of Luke 14:1-14 is that we humble ourselves before others in everyday life. Pride kept the Pharisees from showing mercy on the Sabbath day. That same theme of humility continued when honor was bestowed at the table of the wedding celebration. Finally, Jesus drove the teaching of humility into the very personal and intimate setting of the home. He clearly calls His listeners to serve the unloved with humility seeking reward, not in this life, but in that to come.

This illustration of inviting dinner guests strikes at the heart of whether the church will minister to refugees. The question, asked by Jesus, was not whether homes would be opened to dinner guests. His teaching assumed that was happening. The question was “who” would be invited and “why?” As members of the reformed church, we enjoy fellowship in our homes—this is a significant aspect of our communion. But who is invited and why? Many times, as we serve, if we’re honest, we are seeking some sort of return; rightly to increase our fellowship within our own community, or within the church. While reluctant to admit, we might even be asking, along with the above-referenced, “conservative” commentators: “What will we lose by inviting strangers and aliens to our dinner tables?”

Thankfully, Jesus provided the answer: “Nothing!” His call to those who follow Him is to serve the poor, crippled, lame, blind, the refugee, only because He served you—a picture of the most needy. Jesus served you without any notion or expectation of repayment. Jesus served you when you were a wicked stranger to Him. Jesus served you when it was not only dangerous, it was not only hazardous to His health, it meant death. And Jesus never asked what He might lose if He served wretched sinners. He already knew the cost – the pain of separation from His Father. Yet, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV).

Certainly, Afghans are on the “front page” today. These image bearers of God, who have (and will likely in future days), fill US military airlift cargo planes, are on our minds and will be resettled somewhere—maybe even in your state and in your city. Will they be on your heart? Will the church go beyond the Governor of Utah’s invitation to merely accept these refugees, or will she follow Jesus’ lead and invite them to dine in our homes? Will the church befriend strange new neighbors from Afghanistan in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?  There is no question that this will be hard and uncomfortable work. This kind of hospitality is outside of our American box. It is a bit radical. But Jesus said unequivocally that this work of mercy is a great blessing. In serving this way, we revere the name of the One who served us to His death.


[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/immigration/refugees-welcome-several-states-open-arms-fleeing-afghans-n1277079

[2] See e.g., Exodus 22:21 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 10:19, and Zechariah 7:10.
 

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Refugee Ministry Part 2: The Case of the Strang Ers

 

by Rev. Chris Cashen, Pastor, Trinity Reformed OPC, Lanham, MD

Imagine the following scenario being presented at your next diaconal meeting: Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er just arrived at the bus station in your city. They have two young children, no car, no place to live, no money to speak of, and two plastic bags of clothes between them. They are not permitted by the laws of the land to work, they cannot speak English well, they have no family in the area, and they have no place to go. For the past six months, this family has been traveling from their war-torn country in search of peace and safety. The family is weary, worn, and fearful. They have never been in the United States before and have no friends. They can’t go home. Mr. Strang Er fears that death awaits them if they were to return. Here then is the diaconal question: do you help them? These are certainly not members of your church, and they are strangers and aliens: to you, to your church, and to the nation. Is it legal—in the civil sense? And is it right—in the biblical sense?

You may be thinking: “This is an unusual scenario. It is unlikely that our diaconate would be confronted with this type of need.” Not really. In the current State Department’s Report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions for fiscal year 2021, we read: “The United States anticipates receiving more than 300,000 new asylum claimants and refugees in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 . . . the President proposes resettling up to 15,000 refugees under the FY 2021 refugee admissions ceiling, and anticipates receiving new asylum claims that include more than 290,000 individuals.  This proposed refugee admissions ceiling reflects the continuing backlog of over 1.1 million asylum-seekers who are awaiting adjudication of their claims inside the United States, . . .”

Consider those numbers: 290,000 new individuals seeking asylum, along with 1.1 million people— already in the United States—waiting for their asylum claims to be heard. That’s a lot of people. Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er are clearly not alone, and their situation is not so unusual or unique. The 15,000 proposed refugee resettlements pale in comparison to the nearly 1.4 million asylum seekers (actual and anticipated). The truth is, world-wide, there are many, many more people seeking asylum than those who have already been classified as legal “refugees.”[1] Who are these “asylum-seekers”, what are they looking for, and should the church help? In this brief article, we will ultimately focus our attention on that last question: should the church help asylum seekers?

To answer that question, we need to define some terms. Simply put, “asylum” is protection given by a government which is NOT the government of the seeker’s native home. Websters 1828 defines “asylum” as “any place of retreat and security”. A significant aspect of a grant of asylum is permission given to the seeker to remain in the country where protection has been sought.[2] In short, the asylum-seeker is given refuge from the past and current persecution happening in his home country.

You may be asking, “Who is able to rightly apply for asylum in the US?” Surprisingly, the short answer is “all aliens”. The current law of the US, found in the United States Code, provides that any alien “who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States . . . irrespective of [their immigration] status, may apply for asylum.”[3] There is no other criteria. If an alien is present within the geographic bounds of the US, the law allows him or her to apply for asylum.

A person seeking asylum in the United States is different than one who has been given the title of “refugee”. Each have technical legal definitions. But to make it simple, we might think of an asylum seeker as a “want-to-be” refugee. Both must meet the same requirements to receive immigration status in the US. However, a refugee is a person who applied for, and was given, legal refugee status when he or she was living OUTSIDE of the US. A person seeking asylum has entered the country (maybe with a visa, and maybe without) and asks for asylum protection while living in the US.

A significant question then for the diaconate will likely be raised: is this alien, this person or family, here legally? Is this asylum-seeker an “illegal alien”? We hear that title used often, especially as we see and hear reports of aliens crossing the southern border. The answer is three-fold. First, those who enter the country without immigration status, or documentation (such as a visa), and without the intent to seek asylum, are in essence “illegal aliens”. Secondly, some asylum-seekers enter the country with a visa, and then apply for what is called “affirmative asylum”. These have a legal right to remain as long as their visa is current. The third case is Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er. They do not have visas, and thus, had no documentation when they arrived at the border. Some might say that they are on US soil “illegally”—meaning that they have no valid document which grants them permission to be in this country. Indeed, as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er were allowed to enter the country, Customs and Border Patrol gave them a summons to appear in immigration court to answer the charge of being present without proper documentation. However, once they enter the courtroom and ask for, or claim, asylum, then they do have “permission” to remain (meaning that they are not subject to deportation) while their asylum case is being filed and is pending. So, once their case is filed, Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er are not in the US in violation of the law—but pursuant to the law of asylum. They must be permitted to make their claim of asylum before the proper immigration court.

Refugees who are resettled in the US have immigration status upon arrival as a result of being declared a “refugee”. And, upon arrival, refugees receive certain monetary aid and other helps from the federal government to get established and acclimated. Those seeking asylum do not receive any benefits from the federal government. Asylum-seekers are on their own as they pursue asylum through the immigration courts—which may take years.

Back to the question, or back to Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er: are you going to help? There can be no question that this family needs help. This imaginary family is seeking asylum—meaning that they have permission to stay while their case moves forward—and they need help—a lot of it.  What does Scripture tell us? “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great and awesome who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19 (NKJV). The word of God appears abundantly clear. 

Prior to regeneration, we who today follow Jesus were not merely strangers to God, we were enemies. And yet, He loved us: the ungodly, the filthy and unlovely. We didn’t speak His language, but He condescended and patiently worked in us to grant understanding. We were naked before Him, and He clothed us in the righteous robes of Jesus. We were starving and He nourished us with the bread of heaven. Is it biblically right to help Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er? Scripture seems to suggest an answer in the positive. “How to help?” is a different question, and hopefully one to be taken up in a future article.


[1] Please see our first article entitled “Is it Safe for Christians to Refuse to Welcome the Stranger?” to learn more about “refugees”.

[2] “Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or arriving at the border who meet the international law definition of a ‘refugee.’ The United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol define a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future ‘on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.’ Congress incorporated this definition into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.” https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/asylum-united-states.

[3] “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum in accordance with this section or, where applicable, section 1225(b) of this title.” 8 USC Section 1158(a)(1).


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