Helping the Displaced Find a Home
Refugees, the Church, & a Missional Opportunity
My father was a young boy at the start of the Korean War in 1950. When he was just a few years old, he remembers hearing a knock at the front door of his home in South Korea. The Communist forces, targeting media personnel, were looking for my grandfather, a young newspaper reporter.
My grandfather was pulled out of his home, never to be seen by my dad again. A few years after my grandfather disappeared, my grandmother became gravely ill and passed away, leaving my dad orphaned at the age of 8.
My dad went to live with his extended family, but as an orphan, he didn’t feel a sense of home. He ran newspaper routes to earn enough money for school and food, wearing worn down shoes, and riding his bicycle around the community. He learned English from American missionaries who had set up a church in his neighborhood and began dreaming of immigrating to the United States.
My dad became very good at fixing cars. After he won a national car repair competition, one of the judges asked my dad to join his family immigrating to the U.S. The Ford Motor Co. eventually sponsored him to come to the U.S. He settled in the Philadelphia area, where my brother and I were born and raised.
When I was growing up, my father would often recount to me the significant trauma and loss of living through war. He is well-acquainted with its devastating effects and the longing to find greater opportunity elsewhere. There are millions of people like him around the world who are experiencing horrible conflict that has led to the death of family members and a desperation to find safety elsewhere.
The World’s Worst Displacement Crisis
We are living through the world’s worst displacement crisis in recorded history.1https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/06/18/graphic-the-worlds-refugee-crisis-is-the-worst-in-recorded-history/ An estimated 82 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide.2https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics/ The conflict in Syria has raged on unabated for over nine years now and produced the greatest number of refugees. And in South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, families continue to face stinging poverty and political instability. Eighty-six percent of these displaced individuals are hosted in developing countries, which means countries already grappling with poverty are now welcoming the vast majority of refugees.3https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/
Most recently, the U.S. has seen an influx of refugees in light of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many of us were stirred in August of 2021 by the images and videos of desperate Afghans trying to flee their country as the Taliban took over. I started receiving calls from many people who were desperate to leave Afghanistan and had hopes of being evacuated by the U.S. government. Many of these individuals had fought alongside U.S. troops, risking life and limb to help the U.S. in our mission. And while the majority of these individuals were left behind, those who were able to be evacuated—around 60,000—are being resettled in communities throughout the U.S.4https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/13/politics/afghan-refugee-resettlement-united-states/index.html
The arrival of thousands of Afghans presents an incredible opportunity for the church to welcome and serve them. Afghans and other refugees are all made in the image of God and are deserving of dignity and respect. They carry the weight of the trauma of war, but with a resilient hope that the future will be better for them and their families. Many have never met a Christian before or walked into a church building. The support of local communities and churches can be critical in helping our newest neighbors flourish as they work through trauma, loss, and pain in order to rebuild their lives from practically nothing.
The Biblical Story of Migration
What we’re witnessing today in the movement of people is not new. God often uses people’s migration to accomplish his missional purposes on Earth—and we see this throughout the Bible.
Abraham is perhaps the earliest example of an immigrant in Scripture. He was called by God to leave his home and go to another land, not knowing where he was going or what to expect (Gen. 12:1). But he experienced God’s faithfulness when he moved. Joseph was a victim of human trafficking, sold into slavery by his brothers and transported across different nations (Gen. 37:28). And Ruth fled famine with Naomi and was a migrant worker when Boaz fell in love with her (Ruth).
Ger, the Hebrew word closest to “immigrant” in English, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. God is clear about how the immigrant is to be treated. Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV) tell us: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
In addition to immigrants, God often reminded the nation of Israel to take care of other vulnerable populations including widows, orphans, and the poor, since these groups didn’t have families or resources to support them. In doing so, Israel was a reflection of the character of God: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).
In the New Testament, we see that the greatest immigrant of all in Scripture is Jesus himself. His family had to flee persecution when he was a newborn because King Herod issued an edict that all Jewish babies under the age of 2 were to be killed. His parents escaped into Egypt as refugees in order to survive (Matt. 2:14). Furthermore, the persecution of the early church meant people were forced to flee from location to location—and this was the fuel that led to the spreading of the gospel (Acts 8:4).
Philoxenia, one of the words used for hospitality in the New Testament, literally breaks down to mean love (“philo-”) of stranger (“-xenia), which is the opposite of xenophobia. Hebrews 13:2 even states that some have “entertained angels without knowing it” when they showed hospitality to the stranger. And Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that when we look after the stranger, especially among believers, we are looking after Jesus himself.
A Missional Opportunity
Christians are well aware that Jesus commands us to “make disciples of every nation” (Matt. 28:19). Today, we merely have to walk across the street to find people from all over the world who may not have heard the good news. By loving our immigrant neighbors through word and deed, we have the opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission and to carry out the second greatest commandment—to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40).
Acts 17:26-27 reminds us that migration is not an accident. God uses all manner of things, including displacement, to draw people to himself. Paul stated it this way: “From one man [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). If we believe this to be true, we will see the incredible opportunity that lies before us.
The church leading in moments of humanitarian crises, with compassion, humility, and love, can change the world. For a world that is broken and hurting, the hard work of building inclusive and welcoming communities begins with us. If there should be a people who step up to give and serve sacrificially, it should be the church. And as we do, we have the privilege of inviting our neighbors to find an everlasting home in Christ.