Last night I was invited to a screening of a film called After Spring by the parents of a classmates of one of my daughters. The film is about the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, which is home to nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees, or a fraction of the total number of refugees currently living in Jordan. In fact, the proportion of Syrian refugees living in Jordan is roughly equivalent with the population of Canada becoming refugees and resettling in the United States. That is how enormous the crisis is, and how great an effort Syria’s neighbors are making to compassionately respond to this catastrophe. By comparison, last year the United States welcomed a total of 85,000 refugees, about 12,000 of whom came from Syria, and Texas received about 7,000.
The documentary was powerful, and I hope you have a chance to watch it, too. But more powerful was the conversation afterward with my friends and fellow parents. I learned that the husband was a refugee as a boy. He is Palestinian, and his family was driven from their home during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, first moving to the West Bank, and then, when it became occupied in a later conflict, fleeing on to Jordan. He remembers walking across the desert as a four year-old boy to Jordan, where he grew up in refugee camps. He is a remarkable person, brilliant and cheerful, and he is a joy to be with. Yet the current refugee crisis, which the United Nations says encompasses 60 million persons worldwide and over 4 million from Syria alone, strikes close to home. My friend has lived this, and knows the horrors only too well.
As I preached last Sunday, I believe it is possible for people of good will and real faith to disagree on various issues, so I strive to see where others are coming from. Yet caring for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant is not an issue about which there is much room for faithful Christians to debate. Scripture is unequivocal in its command to demonstrate compassion and welcome to these most vulnerable people. From the Law given the Israelites in Exodus 23:9 to the direct teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25, God is clear about our responsibility to extend radical compassion to “the stranger” and “alien in our midst.” As my friend and mentor John Ohmer wrote to his congregation yesterday, “It is impossible to keep our Baptismal Covenant and also stand silently by in the face of thinly disguised xenophobia and the scapegoating of immigrants – actions which will almost certainly result in the loss of innocent lives.”
I join with the Episcopal bishops of all six Texas dioceses, who back in September wrote a letter to Governor Abbott about this very issue, which said in part: “While vigilance against terrorism is a real concern, [this policy] reacts fearfully and broadly against the wrong people, most of whom have given up everything to escape violence and terror and find freedom among us. This decision does not reflect the overwhelmingly welcoming spirit from faith and community partners across Texas… We urge our state leaders to reject fear-based policy making that is not worthy of our proud state and abandons families who have already gone through so much.”
And I join with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whose statement this week perfectly articulates both our belief and desire as the Episcopal Church: “Refugee resettlement is a form of ministry, and one that we, and many other churches and faith-based organizations, cherish. The work of Episcopal Migration Ministries is God’s work, and we show the face of God through the care and compassion in that work. I ask President Trump to continue the powerful work of our refugee resettlement program without interruption, recognizing the long wait and screening process that means refugees wait months and sometimes years to enter the country. We ask that we continue to accept as many refugees as we have in the past, recognizing the need is greater than ever. We ask that refugees from all countries receive consideration to come to the U.S. and not to ban those who come from countries most in need of our assistance.”
For as long as people are forced to flee their homes due to war and violence, we must care for them. For as long as we have faith to guide us and hands to serve, we must love all our neighbors as ourselves, and that means helping them start new lives in safety and peace. So I ask your prayers for refugees everywhere, the 60 million around the world and the thousands who’ve relocated to our own area. I ask for your support of Gateway of Grace, our local refugee resettlement partner agency, and all who work to help these vulnerable people. And I ask for you to consider how else you can use your voice on behalf of these desperate people God commands us to love and protect.