Editor’s note: During this week surrounding World Refugee Day, we are spending some time highlighting the reasons and the opportunities for Christians to be engaged in ministry to this group of marginalized and vulnerable people.
Today there are an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution, or natural disaster. Out of these millions of displaced people, approximately 21.3 million have left their home country and sought refuge across international borders. In 2016, the United States resettled 84,995 of these refugees, and many new arrivals will settle this year.
A Long Road to a New Home
Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Not only have their lives been completely disrupted by violence, but they also endure miserable, mind-numbing conditions in refugee camps, which are often little more than overcrowded, fenced-in tent cities. Because less than 1 percent of them are permitted to resettle into a third country each year, refugees can spend up to seventeen years in these “temporary” facilities.
After years of living without many basic needs, the few refugees who finally have the opportunity to come to the United States arrive with nothing more than what they can carry.
Our Opportunity to Demonstrate the Gospel
We have a wonderful gift and privilege as the body of Christ to show and share the love of Jesus with them. Per such passages as Deuteronomy 10:18–19 and Leviticus 19:33–34, the Lord’s heart for the afflicted, the downcast, and the stranger is clear. He places a premium on our care for the disadvantaged (James 1:27). As peoples from across the globe resettle into our communities to start a new life, we need to clearly understand that this is an important moment (Luke 10:29–37).
As peoples from across the globe resettle into our communities to start a new life, we need to clearly understand that this is an important moment.
Christ-followers and the local church must ask what we are doing to serve the refugees coming to our cities and neighborhoods. In fact, Jesus will one day ask us how we loved the hungry, the sick, and the stranger (Matthew 25:36). We decide now how we will answer him.
You and your church can take practical steps toward being a blessing to your newly arrived foreign neighbors:
Be a Good Neighbor
Work together with your small group or circle of friends to welcome refugees. Form a good neighbor team—a small group of people from a local church that partners with an evangelical resettlement agency such as World Relief to welcome newly arrived refugee families. The goal is for each refugee who arrives in the United States to feel the warm welcome of his or her local community.
Help in the Home
There are many simple ways you can help refugee families settle into their new homes. Even learning to use everyday household appliances creates a learning curve for someone who has lived in refugee camps for years. Assist new refugee friends as they learn how to use the microwave, stove, washing machine, etc.
Give Welcome Kits
Remember how much gifts from wedding and baby showers meant to you when you were beginning a new stage of life? Refugees are starting a new life in America and the gift of household items, baby supplies, and furniture go a long way in assisting them (not to mention help them feel welcomed and loved). These types of welcome kits can help you get started.
Any parent knows that school supplies can be expensive. Much more so for those entering a new culture. Have your church donate backpacks, notebooks, binders, and other necessary items to help equip local refugee children with the items they need to be successful in the classroom. Collect and distribute them to families in as simple a manner as possible.
Provide Financial Coaching
Offer to help new arrivals set up bank accounts and establish budgets. Depending on their origins and their length of stay inside a refugee camp, newly arrived refugees may not have used a checking account or a bank card in years, nor may they be sure how to plan for monthly expenses.
Tutor and Teach
Provide tutoring for children of refugees. These children start school immediately after arriving in the States and are in urgent need of help with homework and language. Adults may also welcome lessons in conversational English as well.
Take them Shopping
All the retail options—grocery stores, department stores, drugstores—can be overwhelming to someone arriving from a refugee camp. Show them around their new communities and explain the differences between these stores.
Navigating without a car in most American cities can be very difficult, especially to newcomers. Offer rides to doctor appointments, job interviews, schools, stores, and banks until new families can acquire cars or learn the ins-and-outs of public transportation in their new cities.
Create an urban garden
Does your church or community have unused green space? Consider providing a garden area where refugees can grow their own vegetables. Those who come from agrarian societies may be eager for an extra way to provide for their families.
Familiarize yourself with local resettlement agencies that can teach you about incoming refugee groups and provide specific volunteer opportunities. Seek out further training that will teach you and fellow church members strategic ways to share the gospel message and to advocate for the needs of refugees in your community.
Let’s engage this moment well, so that the first friends refugees make in our communities will be those who can demonstrate and speak the message of Jesus.
Terry Sharp served as an IMB missionary in Spain and Brazil before spending ten years at the Tennessee Baptist Convention as a director—first in the language church planting department, and later in partnership missions. He has also served on the staff of numerous churches, the last as missions pastor. He presently serves the IMB as state, association, and diaspora network leader. You can follow him @terrysharpimb.