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Refugee Ministry Part 3: What Will We Lose by Inviting Refugees to our Dinner Table?

Rev. Chris Cashen

 

Pastor, Trinity Reformed OPC, Lanham, Maryland and

Chairman of the Refugee Ministry Subcommittee

Ministering to refugees is an eye and heart opening experience, because the work is very personal. Consider the hospitality practices of those who have fled from Syria and Afghanistan. Their doors are always open, regardless of what they have (or don’t have) to offer. Tea or coffee is prepared and served, usually along with nuts, dates, or candies; a comfortable seat is offered, as is their time and attention. Even though Americans are strangers to them, and different languages are spoken, their welcome is immediate, warm, and sincere. That is their culture and tradition, all brought with them. It is so foreign to our Western – even Christian – culture, that it cannot help but touch the heart.

More refugees from Afghanistan may be on their way to the United States soon. Over the past week, incredible photographs of US Air Force cargo planes loaded with Afghans have shocked wide-eyed Americans. Videos have played again and again on our televisions and computer screens of innumerable men, women and children running alongside military aircraft as they taxi for take-off at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They are fleeing their homes and country, seeking peace, refuge, and safety. NBC News quoted Utah’s Governor Cox on August 18, 2021, “We understand the pain caused by forced migration and appreciate the contributions of refugees in our communities.” The story went further to report that Utah was “offering to assist with the resettlement of individuals and families fleeing Afghanistan.’”[1]

The secular, civil government is holding out a hand to those who will become strangers and aliens here. What about the church? What responsibility, if any, does the church have in helping refugees resettle? Should the church be involved? Does the church have a role? Is there a scriptural basis for the church to enter this arena? Or, as some believe, is the resettlement of refugees, including Afghans, a bad idea? Some of the more “conservative” political commentators are warning against receiving Afghan refugees. Their position might be restated to their audience as a question: “Have you considered what we will lose if the US allows this many refugees to enter our country?”

The reality is that the church, as an institution, has no say over who the United States will admit as a refugee. That decision will be made by the current administration, which sets a cap on those admitted; Congress, which funds; and other government agencies which vet possible refugees. The only decision for the church is whether to, once they become refugees, welcome them immediately, warmly, and sincerely, in Christ’s love.

As Christians investigate whether to engage in mercy ministry to refugees, Scripture must direct and guide as it is the only rule for faith and life. The Old Testament has many passages concerning the alien, the stranger, and the sojourner.[2] Several of these verses are proof that the people of God were called to welcome and care for the refugee (stranger). In many of these passages, the Lord reminds His people that they were strangers in Egypt. In fact, this appears to be the primary foundation for loving the stranger. Leviticus 19 contains one such verse: ”You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34 ESV). Why? Why would the Lord direct the Israelites to think upon their forefathers’ time in Egypt as a reason to love strangers in their midst? It certainly cannot be because the Israelites were well-loved; the Egyptians enslaved and oppressed them. But in the midst of that enslavement and oppression, in the midst of that “strangerhood,” the Lord Himself cared for them. As aliens and strangers entering the promised land, the people of God were called to remember the way in which the Lord watched over them and lovingly provided for them in a place which was not their home.

This might cause us to think upon our status as strangers upon this earth. The Christian’s citizenship is in heaven. Yet, the living God continues to watch over, care for and love His children. And remember, there was a time when we were strangers to God. It was then, in that stranger estate that He sent His only eternally begotten Son to die in our place. Hear that again: God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus, to die in the place of strangers – all those who were, at the time, alienated from Him. Thus, the call to love the stranger among us—just as Jesus loved and loves us—holds true today.

Leviticus 19 is certainly a powerful and applicable passage for us to meditate upon as we consider our response to Afghan refugees. The New Testament also offers applicable verses which might help us determine our response. We can always meditate upon the second great commandment to love our neighbor. In the parable of the “Good Samaritan”, Jesus Christ put to rest the idea that our neighbors are only of a certain class or segment of the population in parable of the “Good Samaritan”. Certainly, that command is the umbrella under which not only receiving but serving refugees fits. It provides us with much guidance as to how we are to love those strangers in our midst—those who have lost everything.

But let’s go a bit deeper. In Luke’s gospel, we read, “When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you will be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14 ESV). The teaching in this passages seems to begin at Luke 14:1 where Jesus deals with serving others in mercy on the Sabbath and sitting in the right seat at the wedding feast. The collective teaching of Luke 14:1-14 is that we humble ourselves before others in everyday life. Pride kept the Pharisees from showing mercy on the Sabbath day. That same theme of humility continued when honor was bestowed at the table of the wedding celebration. Finally, Jesus drove the teaching of humility into the very personal and intimate setting of the home. He clearly calls His listeners to serve the unloved with humility seeking reward, not in this life, but in that to come.

This illustration of inviting dinner guests strikes at the heart of whether the church will minister to refugees. The question, asked by Jesus, was not whether homes would be opened to dinner guests. His teaching assumed that was happening. The question was “who” would be invited and “why?” As members of the reformed church, we enjoy fellowship in our homes—this is a significant aspect of our communion. But who is invited and why? Many times, as we serve, if we’re honest, we are seeking some sort of return; rightly to increase our fellowship within our own community, or within the church. While reluctant to admit, we might even be asking, along with the above-referenced, “conservative” commentators: “What will we lose by inviting strangers and aliens to our dinner tables?”

Thankfully, Jesus provided the answer: “Nothing!” His call to those who follow Him is to serve the poor, crippled, lame, blind, the refugee, only because He served you—a picture of the most needy. Jesus served you without any notion or expectation of repayment. Jesus served you when you were a wicked stranger to Him. Jesus served you when it was not only dangerous, it was not only hazardous to His health, it meant death. And Jesus never asked what He might lose if He served wretched sinners. He already knew the cost – the pain of separation from His Father. Yet, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV).

Certainly, Afghans are on the “front page” today. These image bearers of God, who have (and will likely in future days), fill US military airlift cargo planes, are on our minds and will be resettled somewhere—maybe even in your state and in your city. Will they be on your heart? Will the church go beyond the Governor of Utah’s invitation to merely accept these refugees, or will she follow Jesus’ lead and invite them to dine in our homes? Will the church befriend strange new neighbors from Afghanistan in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? There is no question that this will be hard and uncomfortable work. This kind of hospitality is outside of our American box. It is a bit radical. But Jesus said unequivocally that this work of mercy is a great blessing. In serving this way, we revere the name of the One who served us to His death.

[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/immigration/refugees-welcome-several-states-open-arms-fleeing-afghans-n1277079

[2] See e.g., Exodus 22:21 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 10:19, and Zechariah 7:10.

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