I met with a pastor yesterday to talk about how his church could be involved with refugees. He mentioned that he had previously helped about refugees from Laos. He talked about how the government had armed locals to fight, promising them a better future, and then withdrew, leaving them to be persecuted. Later, they invited these people to come over as refugees but they gave them barely enough to even get started. He then said, “America has a history of doing this—sadly. They offer to help, promise a better life, and then don’t give you enough to even get started on your way—it creates a lot of frustration. Indians know it, African Americans know it, and I think those Laotians know it.”
I tried to give a thoughtful response that didn’t sound like a disingenuous sales pitch but telling the new hopes of one of the younger, high school refugees doesn’t actually answer the larger question. So, what is a good answer? Why should churches invest time, money, and energy into the refugee resettlement program, especially when it may seem like another example of the US promising a better life but not putting in the resources to make it happen?
In my volunteer orientation, I frame our ministry with these verses from Ephesians 2: Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
Most of our churches have failed to remember that we are Gentiles. Our people were not the people with whom God chose to dwell. Our people were aliens, strangers, separated from the blessings of life with God, and without hope in the world. But in Christ, we who were once far off have been brought near. We who were aliens were brought into a covenantal life with God—a life which was not ours by right, not ours because God was the God of our ancestors, but ours because God was abundantly merciful to us in Christ.
The Church serves refugees because refugees witness to us what it means to live as Christians. They remind us that we are bound to a people who are not our own, but on whom our salvation depends. Our place in the household of God is not as natural heirs but welcomed guests. We are saved because borders were crossed and strangers were welcomed as fellow citizens (or, in Rom 11, unnatural branches were grafted in). The church, therefore, is a place of compromised or broken borders: we do not establish or control the boundaries of the kingdom of God. We are saved because those boundaries were crossed, and therefore, we live expecting them to be crossed again. We live expecting our savior to continually cross over into our lives and to call us to follow him as he lovingly bypasses the divisions we think secure the safety and salvation of the world.
The US government is bringing people who have histories of exclusion—refugees—into our cities. Even though the system has its problem, the Church should be grateful for this opportunity to remember the gospel and share it with others. Working with refugees reminds us that at the end of every story of exclusion is a greater story of reconciliation: we are brought near to God by the blood of one who was excluded and left to die on a cross. As the Church remembers that salvation comes from the One who crossed the border separating us from God (sin) and God’s people (no covenant), the Church can share with our new refugee neighbors that the love of God, and therefore the love of the people of God, knows no boundaries: neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).