On January 19, 2016, a family of four arrived in Atlanta with one suitcase and the clothes on their backs. Amanuddin, the father of the family, served as a translator for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Following his service and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it was no longer safe for Amanuddin or his family to stay there. They qualified for refugee status and were granted permission to move to the United States.
Imagine moving more than 7,000 miles and starting over in an unfamiliar place: no home, no extended family, no friends, no community; a new language, a new life, a new world. Now think about doing that with spouse and 4- and 5-year-olds who don’t speak the language or know the culture of your new home.
There is a word in the Old Testament that captures the essence of that experience. The word occurs more than 90 times. In Hebrew, it is just two letters and some vowel marks: גּרֵ and is pronounced “ger.” It can be translated as alien, foreigner, immigrant, sojourner, stranger or refugee. Almost every time it is used, it is either God saying that this is a special population of people that God will take care of, or God is calling God’s followers to take care of this special population of people. God demands of God’s followers a generous hospitality towards the ger saying, “You shall love them as you love yourself” and insisting they be treated equally and with hospitality, compassion and justice. (See Genesis 15, Exodus 22 and 23, Leviticus 19 and 23, Numbers 15, Deuteronomy 10 and 24 and 27, Joshua 8, Job 31, Psalm 146, Isaiah 14, Jeremiah 7 and 22, Ezekiel 22, Zechariah 7, Malachi 3 and so many others!) This is just the Old Testament witness towards the ger. The New Testament has a number of Greek words that share a similar meaning and are often repeated, many times by Jesus himself, as he inspires his followers to care for “the least of these.” The call for hospitality towards the immigrant, refugee and stranger does not come simply from one or two verses cherry-picked out of the Bible; it really does represent the entire narrative arc of Scripture. God frequently shows hospitality and compassion to the alien, foreigner, immigrant, sojourner, stranger and refugee — and God repeatedly requires the same of God’s followers, of us.
So what does this mean for us today in the midst of the largest refugee crisis our world has faced since World War II and as public rhetoric has veered into the xenophobic and sometimes hateful? How are we — as people of faith and followers of the Bible — called to respond?
I don’t think we can turn away from our call to provide hospitality to the ger. And I also don’t think we can sit idly by when words are being hurled that demean or diminish the alien, foreigner, immigrant, sojourner, stranger and refugee. To do so would be to ignore God’s call on each of us to provide hospitality and compassion and to seek justice for the least of these.
Christian communities in the United States have a long and beautiful history of sponsoring and supporting refugees. During and after World War II, churches hosted refugees fleeing countries where they couldn’t remain. This was the genesis of organizations like World Relief, which began in 1944 as the War Relief Commission, a rebuilding response of churches throughout the United States to a war in Europe that had fueled an enormous refugee crisis. Since the late 1970s, World Relief has empowered local churches to resettle more than 250,000 refugees within the U.S.
Highland Presbyterian Church, the church I attended when I lived in Louisville, felt a call to help with refugee resettlement in Kentucky in the 1990s. From that call, they birthed Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), which is now one of two recognized refugee resettlement agencies in Louisville (along with Catholic Charities of Louisville). Since KRM started in a church basement in 1990, they have assisted over 10,000 refugees — representing 45 nationalities and ethnic groups — in their resettlement to the U.S.
In September, Highland Presbyterian Church worked with KRM to help sponsor and resettle a Syrian refugee family in Louisville. While there were language and cultural barriers, we were able to collectively communicate Christ’s love through the gift of hospitality, and in return we were able to put a human face to the Syrian refugee crisis and be transformed in the process.
At First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, where I currently serve as the director of global mission, we partner with a faith-based organization in the Atlanta metro area that connects churches with refugee families to assist in resettlement. Our partnership with New American Pathways spans more than 10 years and First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta along with Hillside Presbyterian Church have helped to co-sponsor and resettle 12 families from Bhutan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and other regions of the world in the past 10 years.
Almost every major metro area in the United States has opportunities to assist in refugee resettlement. A simple Google search will turn up the names of organizations with whom your congregation can partner in this vital ministry. If your congregation is not already doing so, reach out to these organizations and ask how you can help.
That brings me back to Amanuddin and his family. They arrived in January with only the few things they carried. They were greeted by members of Hillside and First Presbyterian Churches who worked together to clean and furnish their apartment, stock their fridge and provide them with furniture and clothing. Beyond the “stuff,” the love of Christ was shared through the gift of hospitality and compassion to this family.
A beautiful side note to this story is that part of the greeting party for Amanuddin and his family was Ali, the father of an Afghan family that the churches sponsored and helped resettle last year. Ali said that he felt compelled to “pay forward” the generosity and hospitality that was shared with his family when they arrived the previous year.
Throughout the Bible, we are repeatedly told that God loves and cares for the ger, and that God expects us to do so as well. Refugees are uniquely vulnerable individuals who have fled unimaginable persecution. Our biblical faith compels us to respond to their plight with compassion and hospitality. We are also compelled to respond to rhetoric that is dehumanizing to the ger when we hear it. Let us respond with love, grace and justice as we work towards God’s vision of hospitality and compassion in the world.
GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the director of global mission at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Prior to coming to FPC, Greg was the general manager for Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA). Greg has an amazing partner in ministry in his wife, Jessica, and a gregarious and compassionate daughter in elementary school, along with a ridiculous lab-beagle mix dog named Luna. He is also a regular contributor to the Outlook Outpost blog.