In 2015, Syrian families seeking refuge from the brutal war in their homeland began arriving in our city. As senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, I have had the privilege of leading our people to engage with and serve those refugees, principally in metro Atlanta, where they have gathered from all over the world. And the people of our church have opened their hearts to them, helping many resettle in our community.
Because of our work, we suddenly found ourselves thrust into the media spotlight. Johnson Ferry Baptist was featured in The New York Times and on CNN, Fox News, and 60 Minutes. Hundreds of calls, emails, and letters poured in from people all over the US. The reason for the overwhelming reaction was that these are not just Syrian families.
They are Muslim Syrian families.
Surprising Support and Shocking Opposition
Unchurched Americans from states like California, Oregon, and Washington (the so-called “Left Coast”) expressed their whole-hearted support and shock for the work we were doing as a conservative, Baptist church. One memorable letter was from a cab driver in San Francisco who donated two hundred dollars from his Super Bowl office pool winnings to help the refugees. He was deeply touched by our church’s efforts, even though he did not share our beliefs.
Unfortunately, however, responses from many Christians ranged from worry over our country’s security to blaming our church for letting in potential terrorists. Some thundered with extreme condemnation like, “I hope you burn in hell!” A strong but small Christian voice did support our efforts though—most notably, our own church members. We are so thankful for their encouragement and involvement along the way.
Reaching Refugees: Reaching the Nations
In the wake of these responses to our work with refugees, I’ve begun to wonder if many American Christians have missed the reason why we have been blessed in the first place. If we truly believe that God is sovereign, then it should be clear that God is leading peoples from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other places to our collective doorstep.
These refugees now live in a land where the gospel is freely proclaimed. Peoples previously inaccessible are now not only within our reach; they are our neighbors. In light of this reality, we need more churches to understand that “God turns even the tragedy of forced migration into the triumph of future salvation.” The opportunities for the gospel to be heard by literally millions of people who’ve been forced out of places where the gospel could not previously go are tremendous. And many of those opportunities can now be found in our own neighborhoods.
“Peoples previously inaccessible are now not only within our reach;
they are our neighbors.”
A Needed Response
Here are three simple ways in which we as Christ’s followers can all respond.
First, we should simply love our neighbors.
Christ makes this very clear in his teaching on the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36–40. We are meant to love God with all we are and have, and love our neighbors. Our government has been tasked with the responsibility to decide who can gain access to our country and who cannot, and we can speak into that process as American citizens.
Our role in the church, however, is different. Once people have been given access, they are our neighbors, and how we respond is our decision. And church, our responses must necessarily be founded in Scripture and mirror the character of Christ.
As such, we now have eight Muslim Syrian refugee families and two Christian Iranian refugee families that hundreds of volunteers in our church are helping to learn English, shop in an American grocery store, pay bills—everything that pertains to daily life.
Second, we should share the hope we have in Christ.
With everyone. The gospel is for all people. This means that Jesus is the only way for Muslims. He is worthy of their worship and praise just as he is worthy of our own. Our attitude toward refugees must reflect this truth.
Third, we should thank God daily for our blessings.
Spiritual and material blessings are ours to be stewarded, not hoarded. First Timothy 6:17–19 is abundantly clear: “Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real” (1Tim. 6:17-19, HCSB).
Those of us who live in America are among the richest people in the world. All of us. We’ve been given so much. As believers, we must understand that all we have received is for his purposes (Matt. 25:14–30), to be invested for the good of his kingdom. Generosity, then must be a defining characteristic—one that determines how we interact with others in need.
Presently, our government officials are reshaping our nation’s refugee resettlement policy. As believers, we should pray for wisdom among our leaders in that process. And yet, whichever way the political winds blow, may we as Christ followers open our eyes to the immigrants and refugees that God has placed among us. May we love these neighbors and friends and see their arrival as an opportunity for Christ’s kingdom to advance.
To help toward that end, a special conference has been created for the purpose of training believers to respond well to this unique opportunity. Gifted speakers, breakout sessions, and specific learning tracks during the two-day Reaching the Nations conference (October 27–28, 2017) will cover everything from discovering and engaging peoples in your communities to developing creative strategies to reach them.
Bryant Wright is the senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the founder and chairman of Right from the Heart, a media ministry that heralds the gospel on popular formats in the public arena. Bryant and his wife, Anne, have three married sons and six grandchildren.