Faith News

Churches connect Christmas story to refugee crisis

Becky Conrad, left, and Zandee Bahr inventory welcome kits between services at Lakeland Community Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo., on Dec. 11, 2016. Both women are part of the church’s redemptive community, Welcoming the Stranger, which looks for opportunities to help migrants and refugees. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

(RNS) This Christmas season, churches across the country will tell the story of one refugee child.

The toddler and his parents made a late-night escape from their home country in the Middle East. Not long after, all the boys his age, 2 and under, were ordered killed by the oppressive regime they had fled.


RELATED: Why Christmas is radical


The details seems to recall stories in the newspaper this year, perhaps that of Omran Daqneesh. A picture of the little boy — sitting stunned and bloodied in the back of an ambulance after a bombing in Aleppo, Syria — went viral in August.

But the story told in church this Christmas comes instead from the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and flight from King Herod into Egypt, recorded in the biblical Book of Matthew.

“It’s maybe a part of the story we don’t like to focus on so much,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization at World Relief.

“We like to end the story with the wise men bowing down before Jesus, and then the curtain comes down and we go home and have Christmas dinner. That’s not where the scriptural story ends.”

Anecdotally, World Relief, one of nine private agencies contracted with the U.S. government to resettle refugees, saw a significant increase starting last year in churches that wanted to help refugees, according to Soerens. The refugee crisis has become more political than he or his colleagues might like, he said, but it’s on people’s minds.

And several prominent Christians have also connected the plight of refugees today with the Christmas story in the weeks leading up to the holiday, when Christians commemorate Jesus’ birth.

At the opening of this year’s Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said the experiences of refugees recall “that of baby Jesus, who at the time of his birth could not find a place to stay when he was born in Bethlehem.” And as the situation has deteriorated in Aleppo, best-selling Christian author Ann Voskamp blogged and tweeted on the subject.

Many lesser-known pastors in churches across the country also have reached out to World Relief, looking for resources to place current events into the context of Christmas, Soerens said.

“It’s not a fun topic for Christmas, but it is part of the story, and I think that’s why it’s so important – because it’s part of what’s happening in our world today,” Soerens said.

(Left to right) Executive Pastor Dave Davis, Discipleship Pastor Kim Whetstone and Senior Pastor Ray Kollbocker stand inside the Freedom Store at Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, on Dec. 9, 2016. The store -- selling items from Sari Bari, The Loyalty Workshop, The Re:New Project and Preemptive Love Coalition -- supports Parkview's Reclaiming Christmas message series and giving initiative focused on refugees. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Left to right, Executive Pastor Dave Davis, Discipleship Pastor Kim Whetstone and Senior Pastor Ray Kollbocker stand inside the Freedom Store at Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, Ill., on Dec. 9, 2016. The store — selling items from Sari Bari, The Loyal Workshop, The Re:new Project and Preemptive Love Coalition — supports Parkview’s Reclaiming Christmas message series and giving initiative focused on refugees. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

One of those pastors linking today’s refugees and the story of Christmas is Ray Kollbocker, senior pastor at Parkview Community Church in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ill.

“Up until recently, I never thought of Jesus this way. I know the story, I’ve read the story, I’ve studied the text and yet I’ve never put this together,” Kollbocker said in a Dec. 4 sermon titled “Refugee Jesus,” part of Parkview’s message series “Reclaiming Christmas.”

His lightbulb moment came months ago when the Parkview staff was brainstorming ideas for its annual Christmas giving initiative and someone pointed out, “You know, if you think about it, we were saved by a refugee,” Kollbocker recalled.

In another sermon titled “Jesus the Refugee,” Jim Mullins, pastor of vocational and theological formation at Redemption Church in Tempe, Ariz., recalled a photo of the tiny body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea after he and his mother and brother drowned trying to escape from Syria. Jesus was close to the same age during his experience as a refugee, Mullins said.

“He entered into the same little small shoes that you see in that picture as a part of his incarnation,” he said.

Redemption Church connected to the refugee crisis two years ago when it gathered its members as a human shield around a nearby mosque that serves a large refugee population. It now is starting a “Good Works” team to help refugees find meaningful employment in the Tempe area, according to the pastor.

Inside the Freedom Store at Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, on Dec. 9, 2016. The store -- selling items from Sari Bari, The Loyalty Workshop, The Re:New Project and Preemptive Love Coalition -- supports Parkview's Reclaiming Christmas message series and giving initiative focused on refugees. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Inside the Freedom Store at Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, Ill., on Dec. 9, 2016. The store — selling items from Sari Bari, The Loyal Workshop, The Re:new Project and Preemptive Love Coalition — supports Parkview’s Reclaiming Christmas message series and giving initiative focused on refugees. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Parkview this month hopes to raise a quarter million dollars for three organizations working with refugees – World Relief, The Re:new Project and Preemptive Love Coalition – through its giving initiative and, like Redemption, carry its work on behalf of refugees into 2017. It plans to help World Relief, by volunteering as airport pickup assistants and “friendship partners,” Discipleship Pastor Kim Whetstone said.

This summer, the church hosted Jeremy Courtney of Preemptive Love Coalition as a speaker, and its executive pastor, Dave Davis, visited several refugee camps in northern Iraq with the organization. And some of the women of the church have started partnering with the women of Re:new, refugee artisans creating goods for sale at the store in Glen Ellyn and online.

“The reality of Jesus’ experience has caused me to think more carefully about and sympathize more readily with the plight of refugees in general,” Kollbacker said.

Pastor Marta Gilliland, center, and Becky Conrad, right, check the refugee Welcome Kits donated by Charles Brooks at Lakeland Community Church in Lee’s Summit, MO, on Dec. 11, 2016. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

Pastor Marta Gillilan, center, and Becky Conrad, right, check the refugee welcome kits donated by Charles Brooks at Lakeland Community Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo., on Dec. 11, 2016. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

For other churches across the country, Christmas is just a continuation of the involvement they’ve had with refugees for years.

Some, such as Lakeland Community Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo., are collecting essential items for refugees during the season of giving.

Last Christmas, Lakeland donated more than 1,500 thermal foil emergency blankets to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. The refugee crisis hasn’t been Lakeland’s focus this Christmas, but the church still collected 70 welcome kits, valued at $6,000 to $7,000, that it plans to deliver to the World Relief office several hours away in Moline, Ill.

Pastor Marta Gilliland poses with some of the Welcome Kits being collected by the Lakeland Community Church redemptive community “Welcoming the Stranger,” which Gilliland helped start. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

Pastor Marta Gillilan poses with some of the welcome kits being collected by the Lakeland Community Church redemptive community, Welcoming the Stranger, which Gillilan helped start. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

For Pastor Marta Gillilan, making the connection between the refugee crisis and her mother’s experience as a Japanese immigrant during World War II moved her to get the independent Presbyterian church involved.

“It’s not about being political. It’s about helping the refugees that don’t have anybody else to come alongside them. If not the church, then who?” she said.

And members of St. Mary of Bethany Parish in Nashville, Tenn., threw a Christmas party for the fifth straight year at the Stonebrook apartment complex, which has a large immigrant and refugee population, according to Jeanette Veile. They collected presents for 500 children, who also received a candy cane and a picture with Santa Claus (actually, Veile’s husband, Bob).

The evangelical Anglican church was planted two years ago in the South Nashville neighborhood – in part because of the involvement the Veiles and other founding members had with refugees in the area, she said. The church rents an apartment in Stonebrook for the summer lunch program she started after seeing the need as an ESL teacher in a neighborhood school, and weekly meetings of its sister church, Burmese Worship Fellowship, as well as other events.

“It’s the heart of Jesus. It’s what Jesus does,” Veile said. “We’re not there to evangelize or to convert.”

The reaction to the sermon series and giving initiative at Parkview has been overwhelmingly positive, Kollbocker said, though he added, “I think it rocks any Western, suburban, white Christian’s world when you begin to talk about Jesus in ways other than … white Jesus with the long, flowing hair we see in the classic pictures that depict him.”

Some are wrestling with “some of the misinformation and some of the fear” surrounding refugees, he said.

For instance, Whetstone said one woman at a recent Bible study on the topic of the refugee crisis believed half the world’s refugees were resettled every year in the United States. In reality, that number is less than one-half of 1 percent, Soerens said. In fiscal 2016, nearly 85,000 of a total 21.3 million refugees were resettled in the U.S.

Melissa Maciejewski adds items to a hygiene kit for refugees at Lakeland Community Church in Lee’s Summit, MO, on Dec. 11, 2016. The church will donate collected Welcome Kits to the World Relief office in Moline, IL, for distribution in Illinois and Iowa. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

Melissa Maciejewski adds items to a hygiene kit for refugees at Lakeland Community Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo., on Dec. 11, 2016. The church will donate collected welcome kits to the World Relief office in Moline, Ill., for distribution in Illinois and Iowa. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

Most of those refugees came last year not from Syria, but from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he said. And about an equal number are Christian and Muslim.

“It’s not necessarily the situations people have in their minds,” Soerens said.

By speaking out about the shared experiences of Jesus and modern-day refugees and involving Parkview in organizations working with refugees, Kollbacker said he hopes to help people realize that the refugee crisis begins abroad, but stretches across oceans to their own communities.

“It’s a huge crisis, but we can play a role in it,” he said.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

17 Comments

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  • Do we really, really think that the good people donating goods, time, effort and money would not do so without being fed a story, a fictional construct made up to tug at decent folks’ heart-strings and counter any tendency to critical thought?

  • Refugees are all over the world and all backgrounds. Say hi to Daesh for me this holiday season. You are doing as they ask.

    Peace on Earth, goodwill towards Man.and all that jazz.

  • The refugee crisis has NOTHING to do with the story of Christ being born in a manger in Bethlehem. Jesus’ parents went there “to be taxed” by Caesar’s government. (Other traditions have it as a census, with Mary and Joseph going to Bethelem to be counted.)

    It’s subtle, clever marketing to link the manger story to political issues, from refugees to Black Lives Matter and even PETA! The purveyors of such marketing, realize that Christians are in a very emotional state with the Christmas season, so they figure everyone is plenty vulnerable to whatever cause involving pain and loss. The real meaning of a Babe coming among us, is not found in manipulation! It is how Immanuel came to live among us, and become a Savior for all!

    Refugees are people choosing to leave their homeland for a variety of reasons. The saddest cases are those leaving everything behind because of a war that threatens their life. Others leave for economic reasons, and gain entry to more prosperous countries to better their lives. We can’t ignore the fact that some jihadists disguise themselves as refugees. The most recent example is the young man who drove a big semi into a crowded marketplace in Berlin. Maybe I’m yet spiritually blind, but in that horrific act I’m not seeing a kinship to the Bethlehem story!

  • “Refugees are people choosing to leave their homeland for a variety of
    reasons. The saddest cases are those leaving everything behind because
    of a war that threatens their life.”

    I am being annoyingly pedantic here, but that is the definition of a refugee. Someone who is leaving a country out of fear for their lives either from war or a repressive government. People who leave for economic reasons are not considered refugees.

    “We can’t ignore the fact that some jihadists disguise themselves as
    refugees. The most recent example is the young man who drove a big semi
    into a crowded marketplace in Berlin.”

    Except for the fact that we haven’t seen that actually happen. The young man in Berlin was not a refugee. So its not a fact. Merely an unfounded talking point accepted without support.
    http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/22/europe/anis-amri-berlin-christmas-market/index.html

    ISIS wants refugees demonized for their own purpose.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/16/the-islamic-state-wants-you-to-hate-refugees/?utm_term=.e6c994685cfe

    ISIS can do enough damage on their own. You do not have to help them.

  • Helping refugees is not being political, it’s being humanitarian.
    Obama causing the refugee crisis in the first place by attacking Syria and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people is not being political either. It’s being a terrorist and a war criminal.

  • Funny, I don’t recall any stories about Jesus sexually assaulting anyone in Egypt, stabbing, shooting, driving through pedestrians in attempts to kill anyone or anything else that has caused a reasonable concern about migrants from radicalized Islamic areas.

  • Funny, I don’t recall Jesus sexually assaulting anyone in Egypt, nor stabbing anyone, or driving into crowds or shooting, bombing or anything else like that while he was in Egypt.

  • Joseph Mary and Jesus did not sign up for free healthcare,,,welfare..free housing..free education and then get a democratic voter card to register themselves for more free stuff, at the expense of the taxpaying workers in the country. democrat immigration policy is nothing more than a voter sign up drive at every taxpaying workers expense in America.

  • What a bunch of garbage. They were required to go to their ancestral home to register. Either you go to some liberal evangelical church or are an atheist and haven’t read the Bible.

  • Sorry, but it IS political and the various Christian churches that attempt to conflate the terms “refugee” and “illegal alien” are little more than tools for the progressive agenda. Their motive? They see filling up pews as a “reasonable” trade off for undermining the nation’s borders, culture and the rule of law.

  • I use the world ‘evangelical’ in the non-traditional sense — American evangelical. Evangelical historically means ‘Gospel’. The word has been misaligned to mean something different in the US to describe a type of church that cherry picks what part of the Gospel it believes in. For example the RCC is much more evangelical than most American evangelical churches because they preach the full gospel and not just the parts they want. For the record, I’m not a RC. American evangelicals for instance don’t believe in the Real Presence in Holy Communion, or that Holy Baptism forgives sins. American evangelicals for the most part use human reasoning to explain the Bible and refuse to accept what the Bible says.

  • What religion do you have news of. Jesus was not a migrant or a refugee. A lie told to promote a political viewpoint of a world without borders. How about moving a couple of fighting age Muslim men into your spare bedroom.

  • Jesus Mary and Joseph didnt sign up for free food, free education,,free money,,free healthcare and then receive a democrat voting card. here is the truth behind the democrat party loving all illegal immigrants,,to them ITS A VOTER SIGN UP DRIVE!!! at the expense of tax paying hard working citizens,,the joke is on us.. UNTILL JANUARY 20TH

  • It’s subtle, clever marketing to link the manger story to political issues, from refugees to Black Lives Matter – Spot on. Note the anti-white propaganda:

    The reaction to the sermon series and giving initiative at Parkview has been overwhelmingly positive, Kollbocker said, though he added, “I think it rocks any Western, suburban, white Christian’s world when you begin to talk about Jesus in ways other than … white Jesus with the long, flowing hair we see in the classic pictures that depict him.”

    Hasn’t “Senior Pastor” Ray Kollbocker read the descriptions of Adam and Eve’s descendants, found in Revelation 1:14, where the Lord Jesus Christ is described as having a head that is “white as snow” (head includes face), Lamentations 4:7, where Nazarites are described as being “purer than snow, whiter than milk,” (Note: Nazarites are Israelites as per Numbers 6:2), and 1 Samuel 16:12, 1 Samuel 17:42, where King David is described as being “ruddy.” Ruddy: adjective. (of a person’s face) having a healthy red colour: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ruddy

    Doesn’t “Senior Pastor” Ray Kollbocker know that Strong’s Exhaustive Bible Concordance defines “Adam” as meaning to “show blood (in the face), i.e. Flush or turn rosy — be (dyed, made) red (ruddy)” and that the Lord Jesus Christ would share Adam’s “rosy” appearance. http://kingjamesbibledictionary.com/StrongsNo/h119

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