In these numbers are the makings of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, but their sheer magnitude can sometimes make the problem seem abstract. We must always remember that, behind terms like “displaced,” “refugee” and “asylum-seeker” are global neighbors created in the image of God. They need comfort and care; they need attention and welcome.
Our mainstream discourse, far from encouraging us to show the displaced the welcome they deserve, is driven by political agendas, bigotry and half-truths to talk about refugees and other displaced people in a narrative of fear and outrage. This cycle of negativity may generate clicks, but it doesn’t generate compassion.
The church can and must be a better witness. If we build our Christian witness upon the foundation of authentic, welcoming love, the church can become a shining light of joy for the suffering and hope for the hopeless.
Immigration and refugee policy is, of course, a complex issue. Even within the church, there’s ample room for disagreement and debate. I understand that not every believer will have the same views about how best to run a country like the United States.
But as followers of Christ, we have a duty not to let our politics blind us to the image of God in our neighbors. We can disagree about policy; we can’t disagree about basic empathy and compassion. For the sake of Christ and his kingdom, we need to put politics aside and create a culture of welcome. We have to resist the urge to politicize the suffering and the needs of others.
Welcoming the refugee, the asylum-seeker or the immigrant starts with listening. Every displaced person has a story to tell of hardship, loss, difficulty and sorrow. Their stories usually intersect with the complexities of power, race, class and world religion. What’s more, these stories are often narrated against a background of trauma, oppression, colonialism and persecution. Listening gives the displaced the space they need to show us who they are and draw us into their lives.
When we listen to their stories and view their struggles in the light of Christ, we can see that these people from around the world are not so different from us. They want the same things that we want: a place to call home, safety and security for their families, peace and prosperity among friends and companions. If the church opens itself to the stories of refugees and the displaced, then it may become a place of transformative encounter where divisions no longer matter.
That’s not just important to our response to the refugee crisis; it’s also crucial for the church’s true identity, rooted in the evangelical mission to minister to the world and spread the good news of Christ. In our rapidly changing world, this evangelism is changing too. In the past, the church’s mission to evangelize the world took missionaries around the globe. Today, the people we are called to evangelize come to us as refugees and displaced people.
As a community of believers, we have to start asking ourselves the tough questions. How can we best speak Jesus’ message into the lives of refugees and asylum-seekers? How can we bring healing to those who have been hurt by violence, famine, racism or religious persecution? How can we help to give new life and restore the brokenness of trauma and loss?
How we answer these questions will determine whether we live up to our sacred calling to follow in Christ’s footsteps in spreading truth, hope and love to the vulnerable, the oppressed and the suffering.
We have a lot of work to do. I recently edited an anthology of pastoral, theological and refugee perspectives on the church’s evangelical mission called “No Longer Strangers: Transforming Evangelism With Immigrant Communities.” From these different voices I learned that, yes, the church has a lot of growing and changing to do, but Christ is already and always among us, guiding us to incite that growth and that change.
Rebuilding our church culture, ministries and evangelization efforts on a foundation of authentic love for the refugee and the displaced will be the church’s task for years to come, but serving the vulnerable must be our Christian mission today. We can rise to the challenge and become unparalleled witnesses to the gospel.
If we do, we will discover that welcoming the stranger can be our most beautiful form of worship of the God of unconditional love.
(Eugene Cho is co-editor of “No Longer Strangers: Transforming Evangelism With Immigrant Communities” and founder of One Day’s Wages. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)