Women of Welcome looks to evangelical women to change the conversation on immigration

Research has shown evangelical women are more supportive than their male counterparts of policies impacting immigrants and refugees.

Bri Stensrud joins a group from Women of Welcome, which aims to teach community members about immigration through a biblical lens. Courtesy of Stensrud

(RNS) — Sarah Jackson remembers being pregnant with her second child in 2014 and hearing stories about “gangs of immigrants coming across the border and attacking ranches in New Mexico or something.”

Those stories made Jackson — who now has three children between the ages of 3 and 10, one of whom she and her husband adopted from foster care — feel fearful as a mom. But none of that seemed to fit with her evangelical faith, which she said taught her that Christians “are called to be wrung out for one another.”

Then she encountered Women of Welcome.

“What I learned really felt more in line with where my heart is with foster care, where I just feel like Christians are called to compassion and to do something,” she said.

Women of Welcome is a collaborative partnership between the National Immigration Forum and World Relief, one of six faith-based agencies contracted with the U.S. government to resettle refugees in the country, aiming to help evangelical women understand immigration and refugee resettlement from a biblical perspective.

As attention turns to the border with the end of Title 42 and with new policies restricting U.S. entry for asylum-seekers, the head of the organization says she believes those women are changing the conversation among evangelicals.

“This is why I am confident that this community of women is going to change the dynamic in the immigration space — I’m 100% sure of it — because of the women who are in our community and the growth that has happened with the women in the community,” said Bri Stensrud, director of Women of Welcome.

A group of women from Women of Welcome join together for a conversation about immigration at the southern border of the United States. Courtesy of Stensrud

A group from Women of Welcome joins together for a conversation about immigration at the southern border of the United States. Courtesy of Stensrud

The organization was founded in 2017 after rhetoric around immigrants and refugees became “inflamed” and “dehumanizing” during former President Donald Trump’s first campaign for office, Stensrud said. Previous polling by Lifeway Research showed evangelicals’ views about immigration were being shaped more by the media than by the Bible, she pointed out.

Research also showed evangelical women were more supportive than their male counterparts of policies impacting immigrants and refugees, said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief. Women also expressed more ambiguity — voicing concerns about security alongside values like hospitality and compassion, Soerens said.

Plus, said Jennie Murray, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, “It’s really clear that what’s very important in many evangelical communities, and the glue that often brings together really wonderful efforts, are the women that lead those efforts.” Many connect care for immigrants and refugees with their beliefs about protecting life or with support for children in foster care, Murray said.

Nobody was speaking to those women, according to Stensrud.

So Women of Welcome created a free Bible study looking at immigration through the story of Ruth and Naomi in the biblical Book of Ruth. To date, it has been downloaded more than 135,000 times, she said.

In addition to creating free Bible studies, done by many in-person Bible study groups across the country, Women of Welcome has gathered women in an online community and curated immersive visits to partners on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Its community is mostly conservative to moderate, both theologically and politically, and strictly nonpartisan, Stensrud said. A number of Christian “influencers” have also joined the organization on trips to the border, like author Ann Voskamp and Latasha Morrison of Be the Bridge.

Bri Stensrud. Courtesy Stensrud

Bri Stensrud. Courtesy of Stensrud

In the years since Women of Welcome began, Stensrud said, she’s seen women who once supported a ban on travel to the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries now collecting items such as teakettles and thermoses to welcome Afghan women and make them feel at home in the country.

She’s also been encouraged to see an increase in the number of evangelicals reporting the Bible as the top influence on their thinking regarding immigration (up from 12% in 2015 to 20% in 2022).

“You start to see what God is doing in stirring the hearts and minds of his people towards vulnerable people, and I do think change is possible,” Stensrud said.

“I do think that women truly want to help, and they want to love people well, but they do need people to acknowledge what they fear, and they do need someone to give them a different narrative.”

Jackson first learned about Women of Welcome in 2019, when she was seated with Stensrud at a benefit for a homeless shelter in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she attends New Life Church, she said.

Jackson wasn’t sure how she felt about immigration at the time, but she started following Stensrud online, then Women of Welcome. She joined the organization’s private Facebook group where women were clearing out Amazon lists of needed items for refugee children and encouraging one another to maintain a compassionate approach to the topic of immigration and refugee resettlement.

For Jackson, who works in women’s ministry at her church and directs women’s conferences at a camp in California, it was a huge encouragement to see Christian women living out what she read in the Bible about caring for the refugee and foreigner, she said.

Bri Stensrud looks out over the border wall stretching off the beach and into the water. Courtesy of Stensrud

Bri Stensrud looks out over the border wall stretching off the beach and into the water. Courtesy of Stensrud

Women of Welcome has made her more aware of policy issues she might be voting on and opportunities to talk to her representatives. She said she’s also begun to have more conversations with friends and family members, all fellow Christians, urging them to look at immigration and refugee resettlement through the lens of their faith.

Last summer, Jackson joined a group of women traveling to the border for four days.

It was a short trip — “Being gone for three bedtimes is pretty hard,” she noted — but it made an impact. She said she found herself “ugly crying” more than once.

“I went into the trip knowing that I would be really impacted emotionally by this. But I really appreciated how they engaged us intellectually,” she said.

A policy expert walked the group through the history of immigration and asylum-seeking in the U.S. She learned that seeking asylum is a right and a legal process and found it “kind of infuriating that we’re not allowing them to do it.”

She was encouraged to see other women with the same religious beliefs asking the same questions she had about immigration and refugee resettlement.

And, once again, the stories Jackson heard connected with her experience as a mom.

She encountered women and their children who were waiting in shelters just across the border for years, waiting to hear if they could enter the U.S. She thought about how her own family had waited two and a half years to hear whether they could adopt their son from the foster care system. She remembered how vulnerable and powerless she felt and noted, “I have connections, I have resources, I have all of these things that these women don’t.”

“My heart was really broken for the people in this situation,” she said.

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