The loving work of welcome: A biblical response to immigrants and refugees

I was working with a refugee ministry in Europe when I moved back to the U.S. to attend a Presbyterian seminary. Then the day after I graduated, I boarded a plane to work in northern Albania, and was there during the time of the war in neighboring Kosovo that led to the Kosovar refugee crisis.

In many ways, these felt like vastly different worlds. In northern Albania, I had a large knife pulled on me while walking down the street, had to sprint a few blocks home from a restaurant after gunshots rang nearby and was instructed not to wear seatbelts so I could more easily get out of our truck if someone jumped in front of it with a Kalashnikov.

These dangers were, well, never part of walking across Princeton Seminary’s campus or studying in the library (though intramural basketball could get a little rough). In many ways, the realities couldn’t be farther apart.

Yet I also know these different worlds were absolutely, intimately related. Our theology guides how we engage in the world, our country, our churches and with those who have had to flee their own countries.

There are and need to be discussions about policies — like whether the cap for the number of refugees who are welcomed in our country each year should be closer to 30,000 (for the coming year ahead) or to the average of receiving almost 79,000 per year since 1980.

But before those details and debates, the starting point for Christians of all theological and political bents should be similar. Consider these directives from Leviticus and Deuteronomy and how they are rooted in God’s love for the people who should be welcoming:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

[God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

So that seems to lead us into a theological/ethical formula that goes something like:

  1. God loves you and
  2. God loves the refugee and the immigrant, which should
  3. guide us for how loving and welcoming we are to refugees and immigrants.

This, more than a formula based on whether we are an American, a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, should guide our hearts and minds at this moment when 25 million people are refugees, when 40 million have been displaced away from home within their own countries, when children who were separated from their parents at the border are still separated and when parents are deported away from their American children and the blame should be on our broken immigration system not on this family who is now broken apart.

We have much to wrestle with in the political, economic and cultural complexity of these issues. But also, when looked at another way, it’s very simple, which I was reminded of in a memorable conversation with my son.

Are we for or against refugees?

“Do you remember what it means when people are refugees or immigrants?” I asked my 8-year-old son. “Yes, Dad. We talked about that last week. Remember?”

“I’m going to write my next book about this.”

“Okay. But wait, are we for them or against them?”

“For them. Remember: Being a refugee means someone had to run away from something bad, like war. They had to leave home, leave everything behind. Can you imagine if we had to leave our house and your school and move somewhere far away, where they speak another language, because we weren’t safe? And an immigrant is coming to somewhere new, which is usually hard, too. We want to be people who help people in hard situations, right?”

“Sure. But some people are against, right? Why?”

“I think people are nervous or scared about a few things. Safety is one. They don’t want any bad people to get in who could hurt them. They also think people might take their jobs. And new people can bring change with them — like a different language, culture or religion that they don’t want.”

“Okay, watch this move. You stand right there. I’m going to jump off the couch and kick you. You try to block my kick, but you won’t be able to because the crane kick cannot be defended.”

We’d watched the old “Karate Kid” as our family movie the night before, so 95 percent of the conversation then turned to punches, kicks, “not that hard!” and laughter. I knew the movie might put the rest of our family in danger for a few days as my son works out his new techniques.

But as we kept talking – in between indefensible crane kicks – and in the future as he keeps getting older, I want him to recognize what is at stake:

Whether we let ourselves be ruled by love or fear.

How we make difficult decisions about responding to other people’s suffering when there isn’t enough for everyone to meet their own wants and needs — in this world that gives much to some and crushes others.

How we can see those pictures of Syrian children – a boy’s limp body lying face-down on a beach, a boy sitting in the back of an ambulance stunned after an explosion with his face caked in dust and blood, boys just a little younger than my son – and not forfeit some essential part of being human if we don’t help? There may be some risk to helping, but there is certainly risk to not helping.

How making security the highest value can give fear godlike power over our lives — instead of seeing security as one important consideration among others.

How our faith may be a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal, not worth much more than empty words when it comes to the rubber of love meeting the road of suffering and sacrifice.

Yes, so much is at stake in how we respond to refugees and immigrants. Working through such complexities requires open hearts, clear thinking and practical acts. It also requires finding ways to disagree that help us all get better together rather than just making others and ourselves worse. Above all, it requires getting to know other people who we think are different — and then finding that, yes, they’re different, but not so much.

I love being a dad. Besides spontaneous karate battles with my son, I keep finding that my kids expose my generosity and my hypocrisy, my love and my selfishness. They reflect myself back to me. What we model is more important than what we say.

How we answer my son’s question (“Are we for or against them?”) reveals a lot about what kind of family, community and country we want to be. After the answer comes the work to understand the nuances and navigate the complexity. As adults, we know there is usually a cost to being our best selves — and that it’s ultimately worth the price.

How can we live into a vision that chooses love over fear?

Witness to God’s welcoming love by welcoming others

When we’re grounded in God’s love for us – the kind of love for foreigners talked about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy – we can choose love for neighbor over fear for ourselves. We can respond to incredible opportunities to connect and make a difference:

Advocate. You can call your U.S. senators and representatives when issues like DACA (about the legal status of “Dreamers”) or the refugee cap come up. You can write an op-ed for your local paper. When I visited with the D.C. offices of senators and representatives this summer with Christian leaders to talk about these issues, the staffers told us that they really do pay attention and it can shift votes. Even in entrenched political times, the response to public outcry was evident, for example, on the issue of separating children from the parents who were requesting asylum at the border.

Show hospitality. This goes for welcoming refugees and immigrants who are new and continuing to welcome those who have been here longer. While fewer refugees will be welcomed in the U.S. than in a long time, there may still be opportunity to be part of receiving a new family. But even if your church doesn’t do that, you can provide services, tutoring, English as a second language classes, job training, legal services and friendship to local refugees or immigrants. If we approach with listening and respect and partnership (and usually with the help of community leaders engaged on these issues), there are many ways to offer hospitality.

Support. We can reach many people by generously supporting local, national and international organizations. We can’t show hospitality to most refugees because they’ve fled to countries neighboring their home country that they’ve had to flee (as, for example, many Syrians have gone to Jordan). Groups like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance work on advocacy for refugees in the U.S., they partner on resettlement and also they help refugees in other countries where resources are often fewer and conditions harsh.

Study and pray together. Ten or 20 years ago, there seemed to be more consensus in churches about wanting to generously welcome refugees. Now people may well find themselves in church with people on a different side of the issue. Churches can’t and shouldn’t dictate political consensus, but we can and should guide everyone to the think about how our understanding of God and Scripture shape us and our thinking. This is why I spent the past two years writing “You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us” and created a video curriculum for adult Sunday school or small groups to go with it. How we reflect theologically influences how we respond practically to our world’s crises.

In church after church I’ve talked with over the past couple of years, one refrain was similar: “It is hard work to welcome sometimes, especially after the first burst of generosity adrenaline, but it has been so worth it and we now can’t imagine our lives or our church without these relationships.”

Welcoming has a mysterious quality: The lives of both the welcomed and the welcomer are transformed. Jesus names this mystery in Matthew 25: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.”

Jesus is present. Love is present. Our lives our changed. The lives of people who have had to flee home but now find welcome are changed. Love wins over fear and complacency. Love wins over violent conflict and across borders.

So, yes, the issue of refugees and immigrants is a political and societal crisis — but it’s also even more deeply a spiritual crisis. Which also means it is a unique opportunity for the church to witness to God’s welcoming love by welcoming others.

While in northern Uganda last year, I visited a large refugee settlement called Camp Rhino, not too far from South Sudan, from which about one million refugees had fled in the past year.

I talked with camp administrators and a number of refugees. As we drove back over the bumpy red clay road, we stopped at one last, small cluster of refugee homes.

We started talking. They joked that I was tall, but one of them was even taller. Apparently their tribe has height genes.

They mentioned their church, which I then asked about.

“Would I like to see it, just a short walk away?”

“Of course. I’d be honored to.”

We walked over and they showed me with some mix of sorrow and pride. The church walls were made out of packed mud and sticks. A white tarp hung as the roof. The pews were thin, rough logs. The floor was packed dirt.

Each Sunday in this church they sing and pray and listen for God’s Word. They listen to the promises made to the people of Israel, who long wandered but eventually made their way home (and who were then to help others who were far from home).

In this church, they are welcomed by God’s love and grace, even as life is so difficult. They told me they wanted me to share the story of the difficulty and the grace with people when I went home. That is, they wanted me to share their story with you.

So as my son asked, are we for them instead of against them? Are we making decisions based on love instead of fear? Are we really sisters and brothers in Christ, the refugees in that church and we in our congregation in the U.S., with all beauty and responsibility that implies?

When we answer yes to all three of these questions, then we’re in a better place to welcome our neighbors, to welcome God, to engage as citizens who want to be a welcoming country and to do the hard and joyful work we’re welcomed into.

Kent Annan is director of humanitarian and disaster leadership at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he provides leadership to the M.A. program within the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. This article includes an excerpt from his new book “You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us” which comes out this month and includes a free 6-part video curriculum. (“You Welcomed Me” by Kent Annan. ©2018 by Kent Annan. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426.