The ‘Why We Welcome’ series, launched during Advent 2019, asks the United Church of Christ churches around the country to answer the question: Why do we welcome refugees and asylum seekers? As the U.S. government slashes the number of refugees allowed to enter the country and turns away those desperately seeking asylum at our borders, God’s word made flesh in Christ continues to be lived and spoken boldly through God’s children and their commitment to welcome.
Amanda Sheldon is the national Program Associate for Refugee and Asylum Ministries and Disaster Ministries with the United Church of Christ.
Today is my birthday, and as I reflect on my blessings over the past year, I can’t help but count my new friendship with a father-son duo my church family and I have fondly come to refer to as ‘The Joses’. This past September, I received an urgent call from a community liaison staff person at an elementary school, asking if I knew of any resources that could help a little boy who had missed nearly a month of classes and who had recently arrived in the community with his father, both asylum seekers. The little boy refused to ride the bus to school or be in the classroom without his father sitting next to him. He almost never spoke, and neither he nor his father understood a word of English. If his father so much as left to use the restroom, the little boy would dissolve into a panic, crying, and would frantically run out of the classroom trying to find his father. The father was beside himself, distraught over how to care for and support his son, dealing with his own trauma from their journey out of Central America and unsure of how to navigate a country he’d never known and couldn’t understand. Was there anything I could do? Alone, maybe. With God and my church family behind me, absolutely.
I knew I couldn’t solve all of the Joses’ problems, but I could be with them as they shared their concerns and questions and direct them to others in our community who could help with specific needs. Who could drive them to an appointment? Who could help them with rent money? Who could do extra English tutoring? I couldn’t heal the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical trauma of their journey or the reasons they had to flee, nor could I cure the deep ache of sadness that comes with being separated from family they were forced to leave behind, but I could be with them and listen to the words their hearts wanted to speak. If they didn’t know who or how to ask for help here, I did. And we could pray together. What inspired me and deepened my own faith was how profoundly the Joses are grateful to God for what they have, and how much they continue to rely on God for guidance and sustenance after all they have endured. When I begin to lose faith – in humanity, in our nation, in God’s plan – the Joses are the ones who spiritually instruct and guide *me* back to hope. They are my spiritual teachers, and they are my friends.
The instruction to provide welcome, equal treatment, hospitality and care for ‘the stranger’ throughout the Bible is clear, repeated and serious. The biblical basis for providing care for those who need it and who are in a strange land is rock solid, no question. But it’s the way in which God continues to speak to me through strangers who become friends, the way those new friends bless our community and enrich my heart and the way that Christ is continually revealed to me in this ministry that keeps me engaged. Little Jose is now enjoying his classes at school, and I’ve seen Big Jose’s eyes fill with tears talking about the transformation he’s seen in his son. I don’t know if they will be granted asylum. I don’t know what their future will hold. But my church asked me over and over again growing up, ‘if not you, then who?’ until I finally said ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’ So I’m here. And that is why I welcome it. The blessings are ours to reap – the Joses’, mine, our community, our nation and yours.