Our Siblings: Refugees and Immigrants
The nation, and our church, as a place of belonging
The door opened. Hearty handshakes and greetings in Arabic ensued. As we entered the apartment I scanned the room for clues about the religion of our new acquaintances. Thousands of refugees from their country had been fleeing death and destruction.
Chai tea and cookies quickly appeared on the portable coffee table as the banter of new friendships progressed: where home used to be, how they had arrived, stories of suffering, pain, and ultimately the death of a son, tumbled out in halting English.
We’re Muslims for Jesus
Sensing it was safe, I asked, “Is your family Muslim or Christian?”
“We’re Muslim, but we love Jesus!” our host replied.
“We’d love to hear your story!” we encouraged.
“After we arrived, my wife developed pain in her legs. We went from doctor to doctor, but no one could help. A coworker invited us to his church to pray for healing, but I declined. Eventually the pain became so unbearable she could no longer walk. Desperate and out of options, we agreed to go with our coworker. One Sunday they picked us up and took us to their church. They prayed for us. The next morning my wife was able to walk and she fixed me breakfast. Jesus did that!” his face beamed.
In every hungry, thirsty, naked, and destitute foreigner we embrace we are embracing Him.
“Yes, He did!” we agreed.
Because we lived three and a half hours away, my wife, Trudi, and I tried to connect this couple with local Adventists who could build relationships for eternity. I queried the pastor of the nearest Adventist church if anyone in his congregations was able to shepherd our new friends. “No” was his candid reply.
Are We Paying Attention to God?
God has a strategic plan for accomplishing the Great Commission. But are His people perceptive enough to join Him?
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth. . . . He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. . . . He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:24-27).
As individuals and people groups, we are not who, when, and where we are by accident.
God puts people where they are so they can find Him. He put Abraham and his descendants at the crossroads of kingdoms and commerce so they could communicate His good news of eternal salvation for all humanity to as many traders, immigrants, and refugees as possible so they all could find Him.
At the appointed time Jesus sacrificed Himself for the redemption of Adam and all his descendants on a cross located at those same crossroads. Afterwards the Holy Spirit empowered people to proclaim that message to the world. Luke writes, “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken” (Acts 2:5, 6). Transformed by the event and convicted of the truth, this international congregation took the gospel back to each of their countries, where it was communicated in culturally relevant ways so people there could find Him.
God’s strategic plan for everyone to hear the gospel in their own heart language was so effective that hostile Greeks later spoke this amazing admission: “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also” (Acts 17:6, KJV).
It is no coincidence that large numbers of refugees are relocating from countries hostile to Christian missions. God’s workaround to reach closed countries includes refugees and immigrants. Though alerted to God’s strategic plan more than 100 years ago by Ellen White, Adventists remain conspicuously underrepresented in many refugee related operations. She wrote: “If we were quick in discerning the opening providences of God, we should be able to see in the multiplying opportunities to reach many foreigners . . . a divinely appointed means of rapidly extending the third angel’s message into all the nations of earth. God in His providence has brought men to our very doors and thrust them, as it were, into our arms, that they might learn the truth, and be qualified to do a work we could not do in getting the light before men of other tongues.”*
God is sending His children right “into our arms” to embrace as our brothers and sisters, so they can find Him.
The Adventist Family
Around the world, becoming Christian sometimes marks people as targets for elimination. They face destruction along with their homes and villages. Some experience torture, rape, and the execution of loved ones. Tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christ have suffered this way.
In an attempt to escape tyranny, believers and people of no faith flee to refugee camps with prison-like conditions where, in many cases, soldiers and the local population exploit and abuse them. With nowhere to go, some live in these camps for more than 20 years, with their children never experiencing life in a free environment.
Nations that agree to accept refugees subject them to years of background scrutiny. If they pass, they are briefed on life in their host nation, provided legal documentation, and flown to a city that has agreed to take them. Resettlement agencies assign caseworkers who speak their language, arrange housing, and help them process numerous forms. Children are enrolled in the educational system, while adults take language classes, and usually obtain entry-level work in slaughterhouses, factories, warehouses, or housekeeping. Sadly, however, because of language barriers and location, refugees may have no contact with others who share their faith.
How can we help? We can help by listening to Jesus, who has spoken to this very situation in unmistakable terms: in every hungry, thirsty, naked, and destitute foreigner we embrace we are embracing Him (see Matt. 25:35-40). And we can take specific actions.
1. Take note of where God is placing refugees and immigrants, children of His, and siblings of ours. Prayerfully develop strategic plans broad enough to meet the challenge, yet flexible enough to accommodate their diversity.
2. Educate, train, and equip administrators, pastors, and volunteers to work among our foreign siblings in the implementation of our plans—a significant undertaking that requires cross-cultural sensitivity and a commitment to a foreign-missions approach at home. This increased cross-cultural awareness will impact the world church in a dynamic way.
3. Revise policy and practice as necessary to reflect new priorities. A decade spent working with refugees has taught me that church policy and implementation sometimes inadvertently relegates minorities and refugees to “second-class” citizenship. Witness, for example, immigrant pastors who shepherd their flocks while working in factories or slaughterhouses. This is a terrible waste of talent. Many have skills and vast experience from their native countries, but their effectiveness is neutralized because we leave them on the socioeconomic margins, oblivious to our companionable duty.
4. Listen to those with demonstrated success. Jimmy Shwe, shepherding a multichurch district in North Carolina, has simultaneously organized 50 ethnic Karen groups, companies, and churches around the North American Division over the past eight years.Reflecting on the challenges he faces, Shwe recently said, “I think my English is not good enough. People don’t understand me. They want to support Christian education for our children, but when I ask for help funding ethnic pastors, there is no interest. If we have no pastors, we will have no churches, and children will not have a place to worship. We ask for water, and they give us rice.”
5. Be prompt in response: time is of the essence. Receptivity to new ways and ideas decreases over a five-year period as immigrants become acclimated to their new environment.
6. Volunteer where needed. Members with a gift for working cross-culturally should be encouraged to contact local resettlement agencies. Adventists who understand that refugees are family will be at every arrival gate to welcome and shepherd new arrivals.
7. Identify Adventist arrivals and help them organize as a group, company, or church as quickly as possible. Celebrating the Sabbath in their own heart language as a church empowers them to reach out to others in their language group, something that would have been difficult back home. They can minister where we cannot.
8. Love beyond misunderstanding. Multiple language and culture encounters inevitably engender misunderstanding, so we must “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
Sending trained missionaries abroad is still our gospel duty. But embracing our new siblings from distant borders is, indisputably, the opportunity of the moment. God Himself is giving us the chance to share His love with His children by warmly welcoming them home. We can help them find Him.
* Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Oct. 29, 1914.
Don Starlin is president of Randall Electric Company, Berrien Springs, Michigan.