Welcoming the Refugee

In this post Becky Stapella discusses her experience at the recent Refugee Highway Partnership Roundtable conference, and reflects on how All Souls might more effectively serve and befriend the refugees who struggle to make a new home in America.

On October 24th, Austin and I made our way to Parkview Community Church for the annual Refugee Highway Partnership in North America (RHPNA) Roundtable. The focus of the roundtable is to serve those devoted to welcoming the refugees not just into our neighborhoods, but also into our lives. RHP notes that in their first year, a shockingly small percentage will be invited into the home of a North American.

RHPNA has convened in various cities across the United States and Canada, but this year we were fortunate to be only an eight-minute drive from the church that hosted it. Many more, however, had driven or flown hundreds or even thousands of miles to attend this conference. It was inspiring to be a part of such an extensive network. For three days, we worshiped through song and prayer. We heard from pastors, organization leaders, and refugees. We then split into smaller groups and attended sessions on the topics that most interested us.

It is difficult to process what we learned in just a few words. I am still reflecting on the implications of this conference for All Souls, but I will do my best to flesh out three lessons that I learned there. First, stories are a powerful tool in changing hearts and minds. Second, taking little steps can make a significant impact. Third, we must also take big steps to confront the problem at its source.

“Stories matter.” Almost every speaker who walked onto the stage spoke those words. We are accustomed to hearing statistics of those who have been impoverished, displaced, or killed in conflicts abroad. However, it can be difficult to comprehend these statistics when we do not see the implications firsthand. Several times, we heard speakers address the significant drop in the number of refugees the White House admits into the country. Traditionally, the United States places the cap of refuges it will accept at around 100,000 and strives to achieve that goal. In 2016, the United States resettled 97,000 people. In 2018, the cap was set at 50,000, and we have resettled only around 25,000. The 2019 cap has been set at 30,000, and researchers expect that we will resettle around half that. These statistics are alarming, but they are only numbers. Stories help us to humanize those data points. How do we process 68 million people seeking refuge from their homeland?

The second day of our conference, we were supposed to have a Turkish refugee speak of her experience resettling in America. As she was preparing for this event, she started her first job in the US and was unable to attend because of her work schedule. In her place, another woman from the same country read her story. The story started out simple, speaking of her childhood farm where her father grew pears and plums. How she could still imagine the taste of the delicious fruit. How it tasted better than the fruit in America. She then wrote of how her family forced her into an arranged marriage. How the school administrators expelled her from college for wearing her hijab too loosely. Finally, she ran away to the United States. Near the end of her story, Insaf, the surrogate reader, read the following line: “I hope for a place where I cannot dream of what I have lost.” Insaf could not finish the sentence. The woman’s story moved her to tears. As she read this story, it became hers as well. The power of that moment still makes my eyes burn. I have no way to connect myself to the woman’s story. I have not experienced that kind of loss, but Insaf felt that loss, and in that moment, so did I. The statistics we see projected on the television are not just numbers. They are people, and each one has a story that contains hopes and fears, triumphs and tribulations. If we are to convince others to not look at refugees as data but as real people, we must tell their stories.

I knew that Austin and I had to make attending the lunch break a priority. Each day, we encountered ministry leaders from all over who were taking small steps but making huge impacts in their communities. In these conversations, we learned that although the refugee crisis is daunting and we may never see the issue solved, we can take small steps that impact individuals in an incredible way, even saving lives.

We heard from Jenny Willison from Boise, Idaho, who was a part-time pastor who worked for an organization called Leap Charities. Jenny explained how the founder of Leap Charites, Bart Cochran, was a real estate broker who noticed the lack of affordable housing options for refugees. He took 10% from his salary and started the organization. He found a member of his congregation who had a detached garage with an apartment above it and asked if that family would be willing to host a refugee family. What started out as one room above a garage became an entire apartment complex. Now, the organization has just purchased its third apartment complex and will be starting renovations soon. Bart saw a need, pooled his own money, and sought the help of his community to meet the needs of others.

The next day, Austin and I met Joani and Mark Akers from St Louis, Missouri. They felt called to serve refugees but had always interpreted this as a call to serve in foreign countries, something they did for many years. However, after returning to St Louis, they noticed that there were refugees in their own city who lacked necessary resources. One family had been living in their apartment for six months but still had no furniture in their home. So Mark rented a truck and asked all his friends to donate old furniture. They were able to furnish this family’s entire home. Mark approached the organization that settled this family in their new home and asked if they could help resettle more refugees by providing furniture, but the organization wanted nothing to do with the Akers because they were Christians. Mark and Joani were undeterred. They continued to call upon those in the community with furniture to spare. After a year, the organization which had previous rejected them reached out to Mark and Joani and asked for a partnership. They now work together to furnish the homes of refugees in the area. Mark and Joani would not be successful in their ministry without the help of their friends and local organizations. When everyone works together, the impact is greater.

On our final lunch break, we met Ling Goh from Toronto, Ontario. We discussed the importance of reciprocal relationships with our refugee neighbors. As Souls on Mission, we see a need, and we want to meet that need. However, Jesus did not simply call us to charity work, but into relationships and communities of mutual service and love. If we only spend time with a person when we are providing him with a good or service, we create a power dynamic that leaves little room for friendship. We need to receive what they have to offer. Ling shared a story in which she experienced this inversion of power. On her eight-hour drive to the conference, she received a call from one of the refugees she was resettling. Ling was worried this person was asking her for help while she was out of town and unable to assist. To her surprise, the person explained to Ling how she was attending a wedding in a week and her plus-one had cancelled on her. She was wondering whether Ling would join her. Instead of simply meeting needs, Ling made a friend. Ling expressed her anxieties about attending an event so removed from her comfort zone, but it is important that we embrace our differences and get to know one another in a personal way. By putting herself in a more vulnerable position, she can empathize with her neighbors who must live and work in an unfamiliar place and culture. Attending a wedding is a small sacrifice which can open the doors to a reciprocal, lasting friendship that goes beyond charity and builds a community that showcases the diversity of God’s creation.

It is often too much to ask someone to dive, so to speak, head-first into the deep end of the ministry pool. Slowly wading into the shallow end ensures a person will not drown in the responsibility. Joani and Mark did not buy their own warehouse or U-Haul the moment they started their project. They started with one house and reached out to close friends. Bart did not take out a loan and purchase three condominiums. He took a manageable percentage of his salary and called upon those in his church to help. Taking these smaller steps gave these ministry leaders the foundation and expertise to expand over time.

These small steps are crucial, but we must also not isolate our small steps from the broader context in which we work. One of our speakers told us a cautionary story about a man walking along the ocean shore. The man sees thousands of starfish littering the sand. He knows the starfish will eventually dry out and die, but he is so daunted by the number of them that he decides to do nothing. Later, he sees a man who is throwing individual starfish back into the ocean. He asks him, “Why bother? There are too many.”

The man replies, “I cannot save all of them, but I can save this one starfish.”

Our immediate response is to support the man who was attempting to save the starfish without qualification. He is clearly doing the right thing. However, while the man’s attempt to save just a few of the starfish is noble, he has not assessed the big picture and may not be helping as much as he thinks he is. He may even be doing more harm than good. Why are these creatures dying on the sand? Could there be a red tide releasing toxins in the water? By throwing the fish back into the ocean, is he solving the larger issue? We should attend to the immediate needs of those who are suffering, but there comes a point where we must assess the larger problem. I heard two speakers paraphrase this quote from Martin Luther King Jr:

“On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Helping our neighbors around us is so important, but at some point, we must assess the system and work toward transforming the Jericho road. One of our most rewarding small group discussions was listening to Matthew Soerens explain what political action looks like: how we can leverage our influence, friends, church leaders, and those who have unique influence over our political leaders. This is an intimidating task, but it was important to me to see others engaging the system at the state and federal levels: not just helping someone along the road, but confronting the very system that builds, sustains, and manages the road.

Personally, politics makes me uncomfortable. I do not like asking people for favors. I do not like going door-to-door. But I do like education. Austin once heard the following from a professor: “What issues make you angry? What gets your blood boiling? Use that anger and channel that passion constructively.” While working at the food pantry, I have heard stories and seen issues within our system that upset me. I love helping at the food pantry, but I think it is important for me to take the next step and see how I can help politically, whether that means making a call to our state representatives or even taking a day trip to Springfield to meet in person. I am still deciding what that looks like. I never saw myself as someone who would engage in politics, but at this conference, I found that I related deeply to many people who were politically active. I see that I may not be as far removed as I once thought.

Everywhere I turned, new conversations had the wheels in my head turning. I was inspired, challenged, and frankly, overwhelmed. I decided to write down some questions to help myself process this experience:

How does the Refugee Highway Partnership impact All Souls?

How to we build a ministry at All Souls that tells the stories of those who have sought refuge in the Wheaton area?

How do we pull together as the church to take small steps that make an impact in our community?

How to we ultimately stand together and correct our current system that withholds asylum for those who need it most?

The RHPNA Conference discussed how we can effect change in our community in big and small ways, but not everyone has the bandwidth to solve every issue in our area. Some families have sought to solve the problem of children without parents; some have tackled international hunger and education. I am wondering if there are others in our midst who feel called to help the marginalized, martyred, and oppressed. Are there some who see a need, but are uncomfortable with commitments? Are there some who have helped in other ways, but are looking to take the next step into deeper waters? I would love to connect with members interested in learning more, brainstorming ideas, and growing together through helping refugees.

If you have any questions or would like to share ideas, please email me at RebeccaCSmith2011@gmail.com

To listen to the RHPNA Conference speakers click on links below.

Plenary Sessions

Table Talks