Evangelical leaders see Syrian refugees as opportunity

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An event poster for the GC2 Summit, sponsored by Wheaton College and others. Photo courtesy of GC2 Summit

An event poster for the GC2 Summit, sponsored by Wheaton College and others. Photo courtesy of GC2 Summit

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (RNS) Evangelical leaders are calling on American Christians to welcome Syrian refugees in their communities despite anxieties over differences of religion — arguing that it is an opportunity to preach the gospel.

“We are having the wrong conversation about refugees,” Richard Stearns, head of the aid group World Vision, told a meeting of evangelicals. “We have managed to make the suffering of millions all about us. God wants us to share their pain.”

Around 500 people attended the GC2 Summit at the Community Christian Church, a Chicago-area megachurch. GC2 is a reference to the Great Commandment and Great Commission in the New Testament, which require Christians to love God and their neighbors, and to evangelize.

RELATED STORY: Why evangelicals are torn about admitting refugees to the US (ANALYSIS)

Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical polling organization, called it “the largest gathering of evangelicals on refugees ever.” He said his latest survey of Protestant pastors indicates that 45 percent sense fear in their churches over refugees and immigration, yet 85 percent believe Christians should “care sacrificially” for this group.

The aim of the summit was to spark a new church-based outreach to the physical and spiritual needs of refugees similar to the faith-based outreach to people with HIV/AIDS that began about 15 years ago. Evangelical groups involved include World Vision, World Relief, the Willow Creek Association, Saddleback Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.

The 5-year-old civil war in Syria has sent millions of refugees into neighboring nations as well as Europe. The Obama administration has announced plans to resettle 10,000 Syrians in the U.S. this year. The U.N. estimates that there are 59 million refugees worldwide, an all-time high.

Surveys show many American Christians remain anxious about taking in refugees. On Wednesday (Jan. 20), the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate tried to scuttle the resettlement plan, though Democrats filibustered it.

RELATED STORY: For Syrian refugees, faith groups want a US welcome mat

At the conference, most speakers avoided politics and mapped out what local churches can do to care for refugees overseas as well as the relative handful allowed to resettle in America. Jenny Yang of World Relief said every state except Wyoming has resettled refugees, and pastors should start by building relationships with them.

“The real enemy is fear. God is allowing us to encounter people different than us,” Yang said.

In the audience, Raed Awabdeh, pastor of the Arabic Church in Sacramento, Calif., said the GC2 message resonated with him. A Syrian immigrant, Awabdeh established an Arab-American Learning Center in Sacramento, where up to 30 Muslim families per day come to the center for assistance with school supplies, transportation, housing and employment.

“Invite the Muslim to sit with you. Make true friends. Be the gospel and preach the gospel,” he said, adding that Christians should not engage Muslims in theological argument. He also said attitudes toward Muslims change when churchgoers get to know refugees.

“Christians no longer see the head covering or a Muslim, but a person,” Awabdeh said.

Another pastor at the event, Greg Holder from Crossing Church in Chesterfield, Mo., said Christian leaders will lose an opportunity if they don’t engage with these newcomers.

“Refugees are precious in God Almighty’s sight,” he said. “This movement needs us to get in the game.”

(Timothy Morgan is a contributor to RNS)

Video courtesy of World Vision