A few months ago, my church sensed a call to get involved with refugee ministry. There was so much ugliness coming from all corners of the political world (some corners more than others). There was fear-mongering and moral posturing; there was “othering” and “not those people”-ing. We wanted to offer a voice to counter that inhospitable message. We wanted to embody the radical hope offered by both the gospel and the Constitution. Like compassionate people all over the world, we saw those heartbreaking images, and we wanted to get in there and do something.
But where to begin? Because, goodness, it is complicated.
It is complicated, legally and politically. It is complicated ideologically. It is complicated practically and logistically. And that’s just on our end. With so much red tape and drama between us and people in need, it’s hard to know which layer to start sifting through first. So we did what you do, when you don’t know what else to do.
We showed up.
First, we gathered a group of interested church members. Now, we show up once a month for conversation and discernment. We have learned from local organizations that sponsor refugees and provide ongoing support to resettled families. We have heard the stories of people who came here as refugees, years ago, and now work with local agencies to support others. In short, we try to spend time with people who have done this since before it was trendy. We want to be informed before we just jump in. We also want our approach to be relational, with no toxic savior complex.
This has been a good approach, for a number of reasons. For one thing, we are learning how the process works, so we don’t just spin our wheels from the beginning. For instance, we are learning what is expected of newly arrived families–like, that they much become largely self-sufficient within 90 days of arrival. So the most important things for them to have are affordable housing, public transportation, and language resources. None of which are available in the suburbs.
So any delusions we had of resettling a family in our neighborhood, hosted by our church members, went immediately out the window. As with so much of life and ministry–if we want to do this, we have to go to where the need is. Not just open the door in welcome and expect the need to arrive at our threshold.
We’ve also learned that most of these families have spent 10 to 20 years in camps before coming here. Many will likely suffer from PTSD; have had little or no access to health care for years; and that a safe place to live is really just the beginning of what is needed to begin life again.
Maybe one of the most valuable things we’ve learned is this: the hardest adjustment for those new to our country, is our cultural notion of independence. Most refugees come from places where community is everything. Not only have they had to form these bonds for survival in a time of crisis; they come from cultures that are very much based in family and communal living. The idea of living and working for your own autonomy is more foreign than anything else… more than our consumer-driven lives, our technology, our conveniences (which, really, the flushing toilet is a marvel when you think about it); more even than the overwhelming choices in the cereal aisle… For all of this, the gospel of “I” is most utterly confounding. Go figure.
So, we’re learning. Yes, they need clean clothes, and sheets and towels. Yes, they need food, and dishes in which to prepare that food. They need soccer balls for the kids, and diapers, and a school, and a place to learn English and ways to get around. They need jobs and vaccinations and some lessons in how to operate basic plumbing. But more than anything, they need people. They arrive with $1100 and 90 days… that is nothing, in a vacuum. They need people. In a “your people will be my people, your God will be my God” kind of way.
So we show up. When you come right down to it, it’s all we’ve got.
We keep showing up. A few weeks ago, we went to greet some new arrivals in their new home. We took fruit, toys, and a few words of welcome. It wasn’t much. But we showed up.
And then last night, some of our members had the opportunity to be at the Kansas City Airport to greet the first Syrian family to arrive in the U.S. under the new policy. An interfaith group made up the welcome committee, and one of ours was featured on the local news. They went with signs and smiles and a welcoming spirit. It wasn’t much. But they showed up.
The hope is that these small gestures are just the beginning of an ongoing ministry with big impact in our community. In our continued discernment, we are exploring education and advocacy, housing, transportation, and other kinds of support we could help provide. But in the meantime, showing up is its own kind of gospel. And you know, and I know, that we can apply this to so many other difficult, complicated parts of life. (Parenting. Marriage. Politics. Church. Community. You know, life).
When it comes to seemingly impossible things, our biggest obstacle is usually own expectations. We’ve come to expect that someone give us an action plan, a timeline, a viable set of directions. In ministry, as with everything else, we dearly love to have a plan. Give us a bottom line. Hell, just give us a bill! We will gladly write the check. But really, it’s not that easy.
Or maybe it’s not that hard. Show up. Just show up. It’s all we know how to do sometimes. And maybe it’s all we need to do anyway.