Almost a decade ago, I was flipping through a youth worker magazine and came across an ad for a Welcome Pack. Unlike most ads, this one wasn't selling something. Instead, it was trying to convince youth workers to have their students complete a Welcome Pack, to collect basic household items needed to begin life in the United States and then deliver them to a newly arriving refugee family.
At the time, I was a young youth worker who knew service projects were important and yet had no real opportunities for ongoing service for my students. So I called the number listed on the ad and asked for more information. Much to my surprise, I learned the organization facilitating the collection of these Welcome Packs, Exodus World Service, was local. A few weeks later I found myself at a restaurant getting a crash course in refugee ministry from their Partnership Director, Julie.
Hearing Julie describe the plight of refugees – people forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution or being killed – made me take the plunge and sign up to collect a Welcome Pack. A few weeks later, my students and I delivered a Welcome Pack to a refugee family from Cuba, mere hours after they'd arrived in our country.
Upon doing so, we discovered an apartment that was fully furnished but otherwise empty. It lacked kitchenware, towels, bedding, and even basic food staples until we brought them in our Welcome Pack. Immediately upon doing so, this refugee family invited us into their home. Though they were exhausted after a long day of travel, they welcomed us as friends, sharing what little they had with us as they told the story of how they came to the US.
That evening changed me – wonderfully and profoundly – and before long, I'd signed my students up to collect and deliver another Welcome Pack, this time to a refugee family from Somalia. What I remember most about this delivery was the conversation that happened in the van as we drove our supplies and students downtown Chicago to welcome this family. During that van trip, one of my students shared about the hours she had spent online the night before, learning all she could about Somalia in preparation for meeting this family. In her eagerness to connect with this family, I saw the power of refugee ministry to unite and connect people from very different places.
In the years since then, my involvement in this community has only increased, leading people to constantly question, “Why do you do refugee ministry?”
In response to that question, here are ten reasons why I not only do refugee ministry, but deeply believe in the importance of this kind of ministry.
1. Obedience. Throughout Scripture, it's clear God cares deeply for the poor and the oppressed – for refugees – and commands his followers to do likewise. According to James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
2. Jesus was a refugee. Persecution from King Herod forced he and his family to flee their homeland and run – for fear of their lives – to Egypt. By serving refugees, we therefore serve Christ. As Matthew 25:40 suggests, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
3. It's a big problem. Today, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports there are over 43.7 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. Oftentimes, these individuals are warehoused in refugee camps and essentially forgotten. Our faith demands that rather than forget, we act.
4. It's a way of learning about the world without leaving the comfort of your neighborhood. Each year, approximately 50,000 refugees from all over the world are resettled in the United States. Through my work with the refugee community, I've learned about other cultures and countries (even ones I didn't previously know existed like Eritrea) and about other religions. I've been taught words in an assortment of other languages and had the pleasure of trying food from all over the world. Refugee ministry has exposed my prejudices, caused me to wrestle with who exactly my neighbor is, and powerfully taught me what it means to love others. The same has been true for my students, which is why this is my favorite kind of service work to do with teens.
5. It's timely. As talk of immigration reform continues to make headlines in the United States, refugee ministry is increasingly important. Being involved in refugee ministry has caused me to get informed, wrestle extensively with this issue, and broaden my understanding of the issue to include this group of people, so often overlooked in this debate.
6. It's practical. Too often, I think we well-meaning Christians suffer from service paralysis. The great needs of the world cause us to wonder, "How do we even begin?" When we finally figure out where to begin, we face a new worry: "Is our help creating dependence?" The needs of refugees are so immediate and practical, I've stopped worrying about these things. When you're in a home with empty cupboards, you realize just how absurd it is to debate either of these things. Instead, you walk to the grocery store and buy some food because doing so is good and right. Doing so meets a need – for them and you.
7. It's personal. Even though the need is great, the relational nature of refugee ministry makes it personal. Because of this ministry, refugees aren't just an abstract number to me. Instead, I can tell you the stories of refugees. I can tell you about families being killed, of harrowing journeys on foot across the borders of nearby countries, and of years spent in refugee camps until families made the painful decision to give up the hope of returning to their homeland (which is, in fact, the only thing refugees really want) and instead, apply to be resettled in a new, foreign country.
8. It's life-giving. In many cases, refugees arrive in the US without friends, without family. Essentially, they have no net, no one to catch them when they fall, no one to interpret and explain this strange new place to them, and no one to confide in. This makes their relational needs great. Even so, when relationships form the basis for ministry, it becomes life-giving rather than taxing. It's a privilege to be part of someone's net and in the process, to gain a friend.
9. It's hopeful. So often, the state of our world today seems so bleak and utterly hopeless. In so many ways, refugees are reminders of that – they're reminders of war, famine, and heartache. Yet, refugees are some of the most resilient, most creative people I've ever met. They work hard in order to better their own lives as well as the lives of their families. They are faithful, believing in a God who never leaves nor forsakes them. And they are hopeful, believing that not only will life and our world one day be better, but that they will be instruments of that change and beacons of that hope.
10. It's faith-building. In the last decade, I'm honestly not sure anything has both stretched and grown my faith as much as refugee ministry. Refugees, who have no choice but to live cross-culturally, have taught me what it means to be in, but not of this world. Through refugee ministry, I've confronted joy and grief; I've seen how God provides, even when it seems on the surface he has not; And I've witnessed what it means for faith to move mountains. I've been prayed for, by people who have nothing, in languages I don't speak or understand. This, in turn, has taught me how to pray, faithfully and with expectation. I've confronted the ways in which my own culture has influenced and shaped my faith. In better understanding them, my understanding of God and Christ have grown. I've been forced to wrestle with the injustices of this world and to search for evidence of God's presence there and I've found it, time and time again, having seen things that truly only God can do.