We all know the history, right? In the aftermath of World War II, people joined forces to respond to the needs of refugees. Virtually all the U.S. resettlement agencies began as Christian-based movements: motivated by faith, they felt called to a ministry of welcome.
Now, over half a century later, the refugee resettlement landscape seems remarkably different. As refugees get passed along from one government agency to the next, the human relational element can appear buried; and the theological component non-existent.
Over the past three days I witnessed just how wrong that perception is.
It was quite an honor to spend time with 244 committed staff representing three faith-based resettlement agencies - Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services - at the Tri-Agency National Conference, titled “Newcomers in our Neighborhoods: Stronger Networks, Stronger Communities.” In three days I witnessed just how dynamic and faithful this movement continues to be. Over and over the message was reinforced that we are all united in a common goal. It’s the same goal that motivated people half a century ago: radical, unconditional and uncompromising welcome.
We welcome those that have been violently persecuted, marginalized and dehumanized. We open our communities and our hearts to potential friends and neighbors. We engage in a mutual (or “two-way”) process of integration and accommodation. We demand legislative reforms that affirm the full dignity of the entire human community.
And although it has evolved somewhat (and rightfully so!) the theological motivation of “faith” is still very much alive.
In our 21st century context perhaps it is less important where this faith stems from. For many it is still inspired by God’s unconditional love; for others it comes from a conviction to uphold a basic moral standard of human rights; and still for others it is deeply felt empathy – personal experiences of suffering inspire us to try hard to relieve the suffering of others. This motivation is truly one of “faith” even if not in the conventional sense. It is faith in the strength of people to survive against all odds. It is faith in the goodness of people to respond to basic needs. And it is faith in the oneness of our humanity - across denominations, religions, and other systems of belief.
Refugee resettlement is still very much a movement, and it lives on.
Joya Colon-Berezin, Ecumenical Relations Coordinator, Immigration and Refugee Program, CWS