OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries

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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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Meet Your Fellow Deacon, Faith OPC, Grants Pass, OR

Robert Kunda and his wife, Aja, grew up in Southern California. They met in middle school and were friends all through high school, getting married after Robert returned from a four-year stint in the US Marine Corps. They had two children while living in California, and then relocated to Oregon in 2013 where the Lord has blessed them with a daughter by birth, and just days ago, a daughter by adoption!

Robert has served on the diaconate at Faith OPC since 2019. He says that he was drawn to serving as a deacon because he desires to help the church in whatever way he can. For him, one of the greatest blessings of this office is having a front-row seat to members of the congregation as they serve and share in one another’s burdens—without the need of the diaconate. 

Robert serves alongside two other deacons at Faith OPC: Clyde Petty and Steve Carmack.


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At Last, a Visit to South Sudan

by David Nakhla, CDM Administrator

This spring, after some years of waiting, the OPC was able to visit members of a sister denomination in South Sudan: the Sudanese Reformed Church. Their country has been riddled with violence. In 2011, following years of conflict with the northern part of Sudan, whose people are mainly Sudanese Arab and predominantly Muslim, the African and predominantly Christian people of the southern part of Sudan voted overwhelmingly in support of independence, officially becoming the Republic of South Sudan.

But less than three years later, South Sudan entered its own civil war, this time mostly along tribal lines—the Dinka versus the Nuer. Because the president and the government were mostly Dinka, the Nuer were under threat of massacre. Millions sought asylum in the neighboring countries of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan, while many others hid under the shelter of United Nations peacekeepers who placed these Internally Displaced People (IDPs) into camps sprinkled throughout South Sudan.

Among those taking shelter in the IDP camps were members of the Sudanese Reformed Church (SRC).

The SRC, which started in Khartoum in 1992, is a Reformed denomination that, in 2013, was welcomed into the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC), of which the OPC is also a member. The SRC holds to the Reformed doctrinal statements known as the Three Forms of Unity.

In 2014, the Sudanese Reformed Church submitted a request to the ICRC’s diaconal committee that ICRC member churches be encouraged to contribute to their ministry of mercy in the IDP camps. Many SRC members are displaced: as of 2017, the denomination had six thousand members with only sixteen congregations but eighteen groups within IDP camps.

The Challenges of Providing Diaconal Assistance

When the request came in 2014, the SRC was not well known to our denomination. It had been a member of ICRC for only a little over a year. Providing diaconal assistance to those of whom we know very little, particularly where the language, culture, and customs are so different from ours, is quite challenging. There are huge knowledge gaps. Large sums of money going to places where money is scarce has the potential to do damage, even in the best of circumstances—it is well-documented that foreign assistance to Africa has done a great deal of harm. We are always asking the question: How do we help without hurting?

To make it more difficult, the SRC’s 2014 request came to a newly minted diaconal committee that was just trying to figure out which way was up. The ICRC had established and elected it only one year earlier, in 2013. This committee of five (of which I am one) represented four different continents and had almost no connection prior to serving together.

We on the OPC’s Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) always seek to minister mercy where there is also the opportunity to pair the ministry of mercy with the ministry of the Word. Many of the places in the world where diaconal assistance is sent are places where the OPC has a relationship via its Committee on Foreign Missions or its Committee on Ecumenicity and Church Relations. Neither of these were established with the SRC when their request came in 2014.

When evaluating requests, we also endeavor to gauge the ability of the requesting organization to properly oversee the administration of the diaconal ministry. Will the requestor actually be able to carry out the ministry that it is proposing? Will it succeed in purchasing and distributing the food or supplies that it intends to purchase?

We knew an in-person visit would help to answer these important questions. But in 2014, a visit to South Sudan seemed neither practical nor possible.

While it can be heartbreaking to come to such a conclusion, saying no to a request requires that we trust the Lord to provide for his children by another means he has determined. We also trusted that, if it was his will, the Lord would provide an opportunity to come alongside these brothers and sisters.

After 2014, our relationship with the SRC began to grow. The Reverend Patrick Jok attended the General Conference of the ICRC in Ontario, Canada, in 2017, and then he attended a missions meeting of the ICRC in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, in 2018. Since those meetings, when he got to know the OPC better, and we grew in our appreciation for him, it has been my prayer that I might be able to visit South Sudan on behalf of the CDM.

In God’s providence, I was finally able to make that visit in March 2021!

A Visit to South Sudan

South Sudan is located just north of Uganda. It’s a rugged country with very little infrastructure outside its major cities. The only paved highway in South Sudan runs from its capital city of Juba, over Juba’s only bridge across the White Nile (which splits the city), and south to the Ugandan border. It then continues through Uganda and Kenya to the seaport city of Mombasa, Kenya, on the Indian Ocean. This is the land route by which most supplies are trucked into Juba.

It just so happens that Mbale, Uganda, is along this road. On the edge of Mbale lies the Knox School of Theology, established by the OP Uganda Mission as a place to train up indigenous ministers. Charles Jackson, OP missionary evangelist to Uganda and headmaster at Knox, wants to see the school used by other Reformed churches in the neighboring countries in East Africa. Jackson recently hired one of his top students, a South Sudanese man named Okuch Ojullo, to serve as a teacher at Knox. Together, they devised a plan to visit South Sudan to explore the possibility of South Sudanese candidates for ministry traveling the Juba-Mombasa highway to come study at Knox.

Knowing of the longtime interest of the CDM to visit South Sudan firsthand and assess the needs of its internally displaced people, Jackson invited me to join their team. In God’s providence, the timing worked out perfectly. OP missionary James Folkerts, who has previous experience ministering to both the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, also joined.

Currently, South Sudan is considered a dangerous place by the US State Department, and Americans are discouraged from traveling there due to “crime, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” We learned that most of the danger is during nighttime hours. So, like the locals, we were careful not to travel after 5 p.m. We were encouraged to remain behind the safety of the gate and walls of the camp in which we stayed, on the bank of the White Nile River. During our visit, we never felt threatened in any way when out and about in Juba during daytime hours.

Believers of Bethel Sudanese Reformed Church

To reach Bethel Sudanese Reformed Church, which Patrick Jok serves as pastor, we headed to the outskirts of town and down a dusty dirt road. From the outside, there is not much to see beyond a cheap, simply constructed building of wooden poles and tin sheets. But inside, the worship is vibrant, and love exudes from God’s people. Anticipating our arrival, the ladies of the church put together a feast fit for a wedding. They presented us with an incredible spread and treated us as honored guests. They even gave each of us a gift, a handcrafted necklace with a cross attached.

We were encouraged to learn that, despite the strong ethnic division in the country, Bethel SRC has twenty-one different tribes represented in its small congregation. What a beautiful picture of the type of reconciliation the gospel can bring!

We were also blessed to visit one of the two IDP camps located on the outskirts of Juba. At its entrance, we were warmly welcomed by believers of the Nuer tribe (easily identified by the tribal scarring on their foreheads) with whom we sang, prayed, and fellowshiped in their tarp-covered, makeshift church building.

We then snaked through the helter-skelter array of temporary structures to the place one church member has called home for the last eight years. The trails between the tents are so tight that one has to step aside to let another pass. It felt like we were rats in a maze. Having seen the dirty latrines located on the uphill side of the camp and observed the overflow “riverbed” that ran through the middle of the camp, we were particularly disturbed to find ourselves stepping down into the homes of each member, trying not to picture what this scene must look like when the rainy season comes. It is no wonder that these camps, hastily assembled, are ripe for sickness and disease.

And yet, the church members were eager to bring us into their homes and to show us, among their few possessions, their children’s school books that they have used to keep their education going during this period of waiting. (Forty-six percent of South Sudan’s population is under fourteen years old, but schools are scarce.)

When we entered the home of one member of the church, he said to us through a translator: “Welcome, this is your house. Today you are now family. What you do is more than [give] money, because if you see someone, it is better. See the children? They want to see you. ‘Where do these men come from?’ they ask. We tell them, ‘They come from Jesus Christ.’”

This man then told us that, thanks to the generous contributions of a sponsor, his son is currently studying at Mukhanyo Theological College in South Africa and that they look forward to when he might return and serve the church in South Sudan. This was one means of hope for the future, as they and most of their tribe wait for peace.

Another man, an elder in the congregation, shared this with us: “We have been displaced from our original homes. Life is very hard here, but the good thing is that Jesus Christ is with us. All the things of this earth will finish, but Christ will never finish. We have been living here for the last eight years. When it rains, we have hard times. These plastic sheets leak. We have water from above and also from the flooding of the area. But we are thankful for God. It is not my problem alone. Everyone in this camp is affected, especially when there is rain. Please, what we want to request from you is prayer that we have peace in South Sudan.”

Prayer for Our Brothers and Sisters in South Sudan

Will you join me in committing to pray for peace in South Sudan, for the sake of our brothers and sisters there?

And, I am happy to report that, having visited and gained confidence in the ministry carried out on the ground, the CDM, with the concurrence of the Committee on Foreign Missions, has made an initial gift from its Refugee Relief Fund to the Sudanese Reformed Church for the benefit of those suffering in the IDP camps in South Sudan. We pray for increased fellowship and ministry between the OPC and SRC in the years ahead. 

The author is administrator for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. New Horizons, July 2021.


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