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Ways to share your faith.

Refugee Ministry

Refugees from Iraq with an American volunteer. Photo copyrighted T. Cowley.As the Church Relations Coordinator for the Refugee Program of Lutheran Family Services in Colorado and also an active member in the Vineyard movement for the last 12 years, I get some interesting reactions. I was once in the office of a man who had lived and worked among the poor for many years. I was pouring out my heart in frustration, complaining that many traditional churches find me too conservative and that some more progressive churches find me too liberal. He laughed and said that sounds a bit like Jesus. To me that was a great compliment, but more than that, it challenged me to walk what some people now call “the radical middle.” Through my experiences with Lutheran Family Services, I have discovered that the church needs to consider what it truly means to obey God through sharing His love with all people.

The plight of the worlds refugees was something I was shockingly ignorant of until I began my work with the Refugee Program two years ago. The purpose of this article to share the biblical command we have to welcome the stranger as described in Hebrews 13:2 and to highlight the needs of refugees who are resettled in the United States. As Christians, we have an opportunity to live out our faith as we welcome refugees into our local communities.

Service as Worship

Matt Redman wrote a song that has been sung in many churches over the last few years. The words of the chorus are, "I'm coming back to the heart of worship because its all about you. I'm sorry Lord for the thing I've made it because its all about you." What have we made worship in the church? As a past professional musician, I love worship in the context of music and the recent revitalization but is that what we've made it?

In James 1:27 we learn that "pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us." (New Living Translation) The word for religion here is actually a word meaning “worship” in Greek.

In addition, we learn in Amos 5:21-24 that God wants more than our songs of worship. "I hate all your show and pretense - the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won't even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your hymns of praise! They are only noise to my ears. I will not listen to your music, no matter how lovely it is. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry." (NLT)

We are commanded to a life of worship to the Lord. To walk with those that are in need and connect our activities during the week to what we sing on Sunday morning. I would suggest that Amos is hinting that if we are just singing our songs and then not getting involved with those that are in need, God has His fingers in His ears in many of our Sunday services. We are in need of an attitude that restores worship as a lifestyle. Walking alongside newly arrived-refugees allows us to serve others as an act of worship.

The Challenge to the Church

John Wimber used to say, "Faith is spelled R-I-S-K"! Many of us in the church can feel powerless to come alongside those in need, feeling unworthy or feeling that the issues in our lives hinder us from serving God. Yet in Isaiah 58:6-8 we are told, "No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. If you do these things, your salvation will come like the dawn. Yes, your healing will come quickly. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind." (NLT)

Jesus echoed the words of Isaiah in the parable of the sheep and the goats when He said, "For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home". (Matthew 25:35 NLT)

The promise is that if we invite those in need into our lives, our own healing will come quickly. This conveys to us that getting involved is the solution to dealing with the issues in our own lives. God works in our lives as we give ourselves away.

Welcoming refugees to the United States challenges church leaders and congregations to balance the call to social action and evangelism within the Body of Christ. The Church has often been effective as a strong societal voice for social justice and has had seasons of success in evangelism. However, we have not been successful in marrying the two within our churches. I believe we are in need of a theology that balances the unconditional love and compassion of Christ with the truth of proclaiming fallen mans need for a savior to all the nations. Scripture calls us to welcome the stranger, to not oppress the alien, and to love and give to outsiders. Also, in 1 Timothy 3:2, the elders are required to be “be a friend of strangers” (Young's translation). I recently heard Rick Joyner suggest that this verse has an international connotation indicating that church leaders are expected to welcome people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

Why So Many Refugees?

Adapted, with permission, from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services,

The displacement effect of war is often very high. Refugees have been forced to flee their homeland due to a well-founded fear of persecution. They are the living casualties of wars and political oppression.

  • The Vietnam War of 1950 to 1975 displaced more than 7.5 million Indochinese.
  • Approximately half of Liberia's 3 million citizens were displaced by the civil war that began late in 1989.
  • More than 2 million Iraqi Kurds and Shiite Muslims were displaced by the 1991 conflict in the Persian Gulf.
  • More than 1 million people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Yugoslavia were refugees and asylum seekers in 1999 alone.
  • Currently, there are an estimated 4 million refugees from Afghanistan alone.

What Happens to Refugees?

Adapted, with permission, from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services,

Once refugees cross a border into a neighboring country, they are usually placed in camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR has a special international mandate to protect and care for refugees. The camp residents must undergo interviews to determine whether or not they are refugees according to the official definition.

The wait in a refugee camp can last many months or even years. Life there is very harsh and dangerous, especially for women and children. The camps are always overcrowded. They lack most basic provisions, sometimes even an adequate supply of water. The camps also lack enough school facilities for children and lack jobs or income-generating activities for adults.

All refugees wish that they could go back home, but repatriation is impossible. Those who do return after a long and bitter wait often find complete devastation. This happened to thousands of Kosovo refugees and to those who lived in border camps in Thailand. They were repatriated to a homeland depleted by a generation of war.

Some refugees become integrated into the country where they first fled. Unfortunately many such countries are poor and lack resources to absorb refugees into their economies. Many industrialized countries are inhospitable to refugees and try to keep them out.

Resettlement in a third country is an option for less than 1 percent of all refugees. Such resettlement is the core work of resettlement agencies like Lutheran Family Services of Colorado.

How Do Refugees Get to the United States?

Adapted, with permission, from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services,

Refugees who want to come to the United States must first register with a U.S. embassy or an embassy representative in a refugee camp. Then an official of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service interviews them to determine their eligibility.

Each year the President, in consultation with Congress, sets the number of refugees to be accepted for U.S. resettlement. Among industrialized countries, the United States has consistently accepted the largest number. The current total is approximately 70,000. The total is divided regionally - Africa, East Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Near East and East Asia - plus the former Soviet Union.

Responsibility for the refugees approved for admission to the United States is apportioned among national resettlement agencies at weekly meetings. The national agencies then oversee the resettlement of the newcomers in selected U.S. communities through local affiliate agencies.


Adapted, with permission, from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services,

The primary method of refugee resettlement in the U.S. is through the co-sponsorship of a refugee family by congregations. This involves a partnership between church, agency, and local community services and has an emphasis on providing tools for self-sufficiency. It is generally expected that refugees will be paying their own rent in their own rented apartment and therefore employed within a four-month period.

Churches provide housing, transportation, assistance with English and cultural mentoring for the client usually for at least 6 months.

A Public-Private Partnership

The structure of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is a partnership between the federal government and qualified private agencies. Many of the private agencies are faith-based including, Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Catholic Charities, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Due to government funding and sometimes because of agency values, all of the agencies working in refugee resettlement have a non-proselytizing policy. One of the purposes of the policy is to protect the religious freedom of newcomers. In many cases, refugees come to the U.S. due to persecution - often religious - in their homeland. I believe there are many churches that adhere so closely to this policy that a refugee family can be surrounded by a church community and never hear about the salvation of Jesus. To better understand the requirements for a public private partnership, we need to look at what the policy doesn't mean rather than what it does. It doesn't mean that you cannot invite people to church, that you cannot answer any questions people might have, that you cannot use the church calendar as a way of expressing God's love in a practical way, and that you cannot pray in a concentrated way for newcomers to come into relationship with Jesus. Our first mandate is to love and care. It should then be our hope that people see Jesus through what we do. In partnership with refugee service providers, churches have a wonderful opportunity to spend a year learning about a new culture, getting to know a family, and helping them to adjust to a new life in a new nation.

How Can I Get Involved?

There are five ways a church can help to welcome refugees into their community as an act of worship:

  1. Co-sponsor a refugee family through an established agency in your area. At Lutheran Family Services, through co-sponsorship, you can assist a family during their first year in the U.S. and expand your knowledge of the worlds uprooted peoples. We provide all the training and resources you need to make this a positive experience.
  2. Make refugee ministry a priority in your home missions budget so that you have the flexibility to sponsor, financially assist or work with neighboring congregations to assist a family.
  3. Encourage your denomination to be involved in refugee resettlement. This could be through established private agencies or through the creation of an agency within your denomination. Many denominations do have departments connected to national private agencies.
  4. Volunteer and donate furniture and household goods to a refugee resettlement agency in your area.
  5. Advocate for uprooted people. Send letters of support for the U.S. Resettlement Program to our President and members of Congress.

May God bless you as you seek Him about how to respond to refugees coming to your area and may He lead you in walking the “radical middle” of social ministry and proclaiming the love of Christ.

Author: Phil Gazley, Volunteer and Church Relations Coordinator, Refugee/Asylee Program, Lutheran Family Services Colorado. Phone: 303-217-5188

Article Version: March 25, 2021