OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries

Helping to Train, Encourage &
Connect Deacons
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

The Latest

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.


Read more...

“Most Encouraging Zoom Call of Covid”?

by J. Zachary Siggins, Associate Pastor of Living Hope OPC, Gettysburg, PA

This article first appeared in the August/September issue of New Horizons.

When I saw the Committee on Diaconal Ministries’ virtual deacon event “Continuing the Conversation” advertised as possibly “the most encouraging Zoom call you have during COVID,” I must admit I was skeptical. Is it even possible to have an encouraging Zoom call now that we’re a year into a pandemic and Zoom fatigue is part of our lives and
lexicon? I opened my email, clicked on the link, and entered the call. Over the next hour and a half, I found that the event lived up to its advertisement.


Encouraged to See an OP Diaconate
When we think of the diaconate, most of us probably think about the deacons of our local church. As chairman of
our presbytery’s Diaconal Ministries Committee, I try to remember that the presbytery really has a regional diaconate. But when I sat there scrolling through multiple pages of “gallery view” on the call and saw the little boxes representing well over a hundred deacons from across the OPC, I was reminded that we also have a denominational diaconate! This connection to one another, as CDM administrator David Nakhla reminded us, is what it means to be a presbyterian deacon. We have a network of deacons with all kinds of gifts and experience to call upon in the mercy ministry of the church.


Encouraged to Hear How the Lord Has Blessed
I was also encouraged to hear about the blessings the Lord has brought to churches both despite and because of
the COVID-19 pandemic. Richard Dickinson, a member of the CDM, reminded us all in his opening devotional that we often have our best opportunities to serve and glorify and enjoy God in experiences and circumstances that we wouldn’t choose. Scott Pearce, a deacon at Church of the Covenant in Hackettstown, New Jersey, shared that the church’s rarely used food pantry was suddenly an important help to families whose businesses were closed and whose income was lost. John West, a deacon at Mid Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas, told us about brothers stepping up to help after the recent winter storms that caused power outages across Texas.

Encouraged to Hear about Challenges
In his address for the event, Nathan Trice, president of the CDM, focused our attention on the challenges faced by
our churches, and deacons in particular. This primed the pump for conversation in breakout groups about those challenges.

First, Trice spoke about how our churches had to balance ministering to the needs of both body and soul in 2020—to balance legitimate concerns about public health with the important needs of the soul. Recognizing the difficulty of finding that balance, the second ministry issue he identified was the need to preserve peace and unity in the church despite our disagreements over these questions. Rather than leaving me lamenting (or worse, complaining about) the conflict and disunity we’ve experienced this past year, Trice prompted me to reflect on how navigating these challenges should leave us better equipped to deal with conflict in the church in a healthy, loving, and biblical way going forward.

Finally, Trice spoke about the challenge of ministering to the needy apart from physical presence. Recognizing that we’ve always had the category of a “shut-in,” our ministry was considerably complicated by the fact that, briefly, we all became shut-ins and then, for longer periods of time, were unable to minister in person to the needs of our shut-ins. Even creative solutions felt inadequate to meet the needs of those unable to participate in the regular ministry of the church.

Reflecting on the challenges of this past year might seem like an odd way to be encouraged, but Trice’s focus on what we’ve learned led to rich conversations in our breakout groups.


Encouraged about Diaconal Ministries in the Future
When our facilitator asked about how deacons can uniquely contribute to caring for the needs of both body and soul, many said that meeting physical needs opened doors for ministering to spiritual needs as well. Many of the needs of this past year required elders and deacons to work together. We care for Christ’s dearly loved people with greater effectiveness and fruitfulness when the shepherding ministry of the session and the mercy ministry of the diaconate are viewed as distinct but inseparable parts of the ministry that the church is called to carry out in Christ’s name.


Read more...

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).


Read more...