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

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:

  • Order take out or buy gift cards from immigrant-owned restaurants or businesses as a way to provide them earned income. 
  • Be part of the “Share Your Stimulus” movement where people who continue to receive paychecks or have a stronger financial foundation are sharing stories of using their coronavirus stimulus to help those who are struggling financially, and are encouraging others to do the same. 

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.   

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