7 ways to serve our immigrant and refugee neighbors during a pandemic

May 4, 2020

One of the bright spots of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the immediate and innovative responses of churches to help their local communities. There are countless stories of Christians caring for vulnerable adults, providing meals to healthcare workers, and offering support to those who have recently become unemployed.  

There are some needs, however, that can easily be overlooked, especially in times like these when the gaps between social circles are disproportionately wide. Our immigrant and refugee neighbors are among those whose needs often fly under the radar. Many of these individuals and families were already facing significant challenges before the coronavirus began to spread. With the virus reaching pandemic level, those challenges have increased exponentially. As U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Patrick Leahy argued in a bi-partisan letter to the State Department, refugees and certain immigrant visa holders “are among the most vulnerable populations during this global COVID-19 pandemic.”  

In addition, several drastic changes to immigration policies and benefits have been enacted during this lockdown period, and many immigration court dockets are delayed indefinitely. This means thousands of cases will remain unresolved for prolonged periods and could even result in expired documentation for many who could have otherwise had their papers renewed. Such complications and the recent executive order from the White House have clearly heightened concerns and insecurity among immigrants and refugees.  

In a recent interview for a Christianity Today article, I broached the subject of practical ways the Church can serve our immigrant and refugee neighbors during this pandemic. I want to expand further on those ideas, and present seven ways we can serve our immigrant and refugee neighbors right now.

We can demonstrate the love of Christ to our immigrant and refugee neighbors by helping to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in his name, and share with them the most important message they could ever hear.

1. Reach out personally to your immigrant and refugee neighbors. With so many in-person services and organizations closed to the public, including most of those provided by our churches, this is a great time to take the initiative to reach out to someone personally. Many immigrants and refugees are facing higher levels of fear, stress, insecurity, separation, and loneliness. Though we may not be able to visit them in person, most are easy to communicate with using texting, social media messaging, or other social apps such as WhatsApp and Viber.

2. Ensure individuals and families receive and understand community-wide health and safety communications. Language and cultural barriers make it difficult for some to fully understand the reasons behind the “steps to slow the spread,” such as social distancing. This can be of particular concern for immigrant and refugee churches, some of whom have continued meeting in groups simply because they have not accessed or interpreted CDC or health department guidelines adequately. Those of us who are more connected can help others who are not by disseminating and interpreting this vital information for them. USA Hello has set up a helpful website to help communicate this information. Other helpful resources with multiple languages include DSHS and these COVID-19 facts sheets

3. Look to address job and income insecurity. The economic impact we are all feeling has hit immigrant and refugee households hard as well. It has been well-documented that many immigrants serve in healthcare and other critical support industries such as food supply, transportation, maintenance, and manufacturing. These jobs are often performed in environments where social distancing is not possible, resulting in elevated risk factors for workers and their families. On the other hand, many others are self-employed, small business owners, or employed in nonessential entities. In addition, many immigrant workers are not eligible to receive a coronavirus stimulus payment. Here are a couple practical ideas:

4. Keep an eye out for concerns regarding mental and emotional health. Many immigrants and refugees already deal with trauma-related illness or difficulties because of past experiences. Consider the additional strain added to those who have been further separated from loved ones and cannot care for them as they previously could. These problems are often worsened by a lack of education and awareness of basic concerns related to mental and emotional health. In some cultures, there is a stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment. Mental health resources are also limited for those without financial resources. USA Hello’s website is a good starting place for information and resources regarding mental health among immigrants and refugees.

5. Learn from and serve alongside your immigrant and refugee neighbors. One of the most common mistakes made by churches and missionaries is viewing ministry to others as one-directional. Our immigrant and refugee neighbors have much to contribute in many different areas, and they are eager to do so. In our own church, a Chinese Christian couple has provided thousands of N95 masks for healthcare workers in Oklahoma, New York City, and China. We’ve also had a group of refugee women who have been sewing and distributing medical masks and caps for several weeks. It is also important to remember that many immigrants and refugees have survived the gravest of circumstances and can offer a great deal of knowledge and experience to benefit others.

6. Invite your immigrant and refugee neighbors to join your online services. If your church is currently broadcasting services or producing other media content; invite your immigrant and refugee neighbor to watch. I’m confident you will find many who will not only say “yes” to your invitation; they will also follow through by logging on to your broadcasts. Our church has seen a measurable increase in the involvement of our international families during this time. We hope this will help us recapture some of the momentum we’ve lost by not being able to conduct our church and local ministries in person. Online services may actually be a preferred way for some to visit your church for the first time because many of the barriers they may perceive in terms of being welcomed are removed. Subtitles and text banners on videos can also be helpful in improving cross-cultural communication.

7. Look for opportunities to introduce or discuss the gospel to your immigrant and refugee neighbors. I’ve heard from many in our church who have been approached directly by friends, neighbors, or colleagues from another faith asking specifically about how the Christian faith teaches us to navigate these times. I’ve personally been contacted by multiple Muslim-background friends who want to know more about how the Bible addresses our current crisis. There has never been a better time to introduce the good news about Jesus into conversations and interactions with those from other faiths and cultures.

Hearts are open and opportunities abound in times of greatest need. I believe the Church is poised to take the lead in moments like these and provide hope in ways no one else can. We can demonstrate the love of Christ to our immigrant and refugee neighbors by helping to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in his name, and share with them the most important message they could ever hear.  

Recommended video resource: Kent Annan of Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute interviews Jenny Yang, Durmomo Gary, and Matt Soerens of World Relief on this topic.   

Eric Costanzo

Eric Costanzo (Ph.D.) is lead pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and executive director for RisingVillage.org, an organization with initiatives to help marginalized people become full participants in their communities. Eric is also co-author of Inalienable (IVP, 2022). Eric’s other publications are available from his website. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24