“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Hebrews 11:13
Millions of stories of internally displaced persons (IDP), refugees and immigrants from around the globe will never be told or heard. Many of their stories will go to the grave with them. Even when they are told, who is listening? Too many IDPs who remain in their homeland are forced to find refuge in insecure buildings, where they are neither safe or warm. They suffer hunger and cold. Some are forced to turn to survival sex or to begging in the streets. In an attempt to flee, smugglers deplete them of any funds with which to start a new life in a new place and IDPs become victims of human trafficking. It’s not just Syria that is bleeding its own. South Sudan and Afghanistan, along with Syria, account for over half of all IDPs and refugees. Closer to home, children remain in detention centers and tent cities at the Mexico-U.S. border, separated from their parents.
The statistics are startling: Nearly every two seconds one person is forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or persecution, reports the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA). According to the UNRA, we are witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 68.5 million people, in fact. To date, there are 40 million IDPs around the globe, 25.4 million refugees — over half under the age of 18. And, there are 3.1 million asylum seekers. The UNRA also reports that an estimated 10 million stateless people have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations is working with the United Nations (UN), the international community and Presbyterians to heed the call to advocate for the millions of men, women and children who find themselves forced to flee their homes and their homelands. War, violence, civil conflict, political strife and gross human rights abuse are displacing scores of people, many who live in refugee camps, who call a tent their home and who wait, sometimes for years, to reestablish their lives.
On September 17, 2018, President Trump announced plans to cap the number of refugees that can be resettled in the United States next year at 30,000, a number which represents a reduction of a third from the 45,000-person limit — the lowest ceiling a president has placed on the refugee program since its creation in 1980, which was formed to protect foreigners fleeing violence and persecution.
Answering the call
“The call to care for immigrants is reiterated 37 times throughout the Bible,” says Ryan Smith, director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN in New York City. “We work in coalition with other faith-based and secular organizations to push governments to bring peace and justice to the world. We do so through advocacy with ambassadors on the UN Security Council, in UN Commissions, as well as with the UN General Assembly.”
This year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will send a delegation to Marrakesh, Morocco, for the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Impact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. In addition, in an effort to bring international advocacy home to churches across the U.S., 10 doctoral students from Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia attended a two-week long course, “The Church in a World of Displaced Persons,” at the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN and at the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D. C. The students met with representatives from the United Methodist Church, the World Council of Churches and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Mark Douglas, professor of ethics at Columbia, who taught the course, shared what is meant by the theology of displacement: “What is necessary to understand when we speak about the theology of placement and displacement is that movement is the norm. Staying put is the exception. We need to consider that this is the lived reality of human beings. We are all pilgrims on a pilgrimage.”
He cited numerous biblical examples — including Abraham who sojourned to a different land, and Moses who took refugee in the wilderness when he fled Egypt before he led the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. Remembering that this world is not a final destination, we live in the tension of already at home in God’s creation, and not yet home, Douglas says. The church is called to be morally engaged, to not resist the suffering of the refugee.
“We are to honor their lived reality, honor their suffering not by assessing what I think that looks like or my experience of displacement,” he continued. “Understanding what true hospitality is is imperative when ministering to displaced persons. The Christian church’s rich tradition of hospitality, of making way, making space for the immigrant, refugee, pilgrim, needs to be understood as providing for the other, as giving space. We are stewards of that space, it is not our possession.”
The challenge, he reiterated, is not to see the displaced person as someone different from ourselves. The deep moral issue of exiles is to address the suffering of our own displacement and not superimpose that experience on others.
What’s a church to do?
“Knowing where to start is a real challenge for churches or individuals,” said Smith. The church has an abundance of resources to engage in advocacy and service, including the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN, the Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Office of Immigration Services.
First and foremost, said Douglas, is to resist narratives driven by fear: narratives of terrorists and of jobs being taken away. Instead, pastors need to teach and share truthful narratives.
“We have to stop being driven by fear and instead be driven by love, to trust rather than not trust. We need to be reminded of one’s own displacement and experiences of generosity. Give as you’ve been given to,” he said. “The United States is a country of immigrants. We all came from somewhere else. To be opposed to those who we don’t even know is to undermine our own grandest narrative.”
Douglas said the difficult question each one of us has to answer is: “What is God calling and commanding us to do?” He advised: “Pay attention to those around you; find out what conditions those around you are living in. Search out how you can help with the suffering around you, and remember there is no one way to help. Shelters, clinics, jobs — be connectional in the ways you engage. Be ecumenical, broad and charitable.”
Second, he said it is essential to know and to learn about what is going on in and around the world. Engage the issues and the questions seriously. Consider that climate change has threatened to displace another 2.2 million.
Third, attend to your own backyard. Discern where God is calling on the local level.
“Our job isn’t to make history come out right. Figure out what God’s doing and get on board. History is God’s problem,” said Douglas.
John Odom, the presbyter for community life in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, attended the course taught at the Presbytery Ministry at the UN and the Office of Public Witness. He said: “The course helped me to understand the magnitude of the problem around the globe, a problem that encompasses the whole world. Scripture calls us to care for the stranger, to do all unto Jesus.” He acknowledged that there is no quick and easy fix. With its deep systemic roots, global displacement is not going to go away.
A longstanding ministry that has actively been involved with displaced persons is the Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM) that works to provide resettlement services to refugees. Through attending to basic needs during the first months of resettlement in Kentucky, KRM secures initial housing placements for those who are eligible that are safe, sanitary and affordable. Caseworkers assist families with initial applications for documents and IDs and temporary benefit programs for food, cash and medical support. English is taught as a second language as a way to help adults find their first job in the U.S. Such services, among others provided, encourage hope and a sense of belonging and inclusion to those who come to the U.S. not by choice, but having been forced out of their homeland.
“We have to encourage our churches to do something, to connect with folk who are refugees. It may mean sponsoring a family or teaching English. We have to seek out our shared human values instead of political issues; to love as Christ loved us,” said Odom.
However, more direct political action may be necessary with the drastically reduced number of refugees being allowed in the U.S., even if it means holding the government accountable for the quota, since historically the quota has never been fully met.
As part of the course on global displacement, the students had to present a final project. Odom is planning a presbytery-wide event that will engage churches around the issue of global displacement and give opportunities to learn from each other’s congregations, which include Spanish, Taiwanese and Korean churches.
“My hope is that it will ‘humanize’ the refugee, and that our churches will create an environment of welcome as well as celebration of the skills and talents our resettled displaced persons bring to our communities,” added Odom.
Citing one practical hands-on way congregations and individuals can minister to refugees is to adopt a family — meaning to take on the task of helping a family connect with sponsoring organizations, and to welcome and help to acclimate a newly placed person or family to life in America. To adopt a family does not mean giving financial support, but helping to deal with cultural differences. Odom said, for example, showing that we don’t put wood in our stoves for cooking, or how the microwave oven works and explaining that Americans don’t trade on a barter system.
Odom recalled the story of a couple who worshipped at a church he served in North Carolina who asked for prayer to be healed from infertility. They had been told that it would be impossible to conceive.
“They believe they conceived that very night. What they didn’t realize at the time was that they were about to lose medical coverage, and in a day and age when giving birth can put a family into medical bankruptcy, people from the church stepped up to help so that they didn’t lose coverage,” said Odom.
Ministering to the displaced may entail civil disobedience, he added. Some churches continue the Sanctuary Movement by providing sanctuary in their facilities for persons and families who would otherwise be deported.
“What we need to understand is that persons of a host family are changed,” said Odom. “They see the world through different eyes. They understand their own country better; they have more compassion and empathy for those who struggle with poverty who are part of our own place.”
Sherry Blackman, a journalist, poet and author, serves as the pastor of The Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, as well as a truck stop chaplain at the Travel Center of America in Columbia, New Jersey, a validated ministry of Newton Presbytery.