Kristine Van Noord, who will be speaking later this month at the “Loving Your Neighbor Conference” at Calvin Theological Seminary, was pleased this week when three fathers who had crossed the U.S. border three months ago were reunited with their children in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Especially given the timeliness of the issue of children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, the conference will address “Ministry Among Migrants, Immigrants and Refugees” and reflect on questions like “How does the Bible help us navigate in this time and place?”
Because U.S. immigration officials had detained the three fathers under a “zero tolerance” order in effect at the time, the dads were incarcerated while their children, all under age five, were sent to stay in the temporary refugee foster care program through Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids. Bethany undertakes refugee resettlement work in the U.S. for the CRC.
Hundreds of other children were separated from their parents as well, and a federal judge recently ruled that all of the children under five must be reunited by this week with their families.
Serving as Bethany’s program manager for refugee resettlement, Van Noord has had an up-close look at the difficulties and uncertainty that such young children have experienced. She has seen the emotions of a child who has no idea why he or she is there.
“We are currently in the worst refugee crisis in history. It is crucial for the church to grapple with what it means to ‘Love Your Neighbor,’” said Van Noord in describing the conference to be held July 30-Aug. 1 at the seminary.
“During this conference,” said Van Noord, “attendees can learn about the need as well as practical ways that churches and individuals can love their neighbor and welcome the stranger.”
Jul Medenblik, president of the seminary, noted that the theme for this second “Loving Your Neighbor Conference” comes from Jesus, who said the first and greatest commandment is to love God, and the second commandment is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matt. 22:37-40).
“But what does loving your neighbor mean for us today, especially with neighbors who arrive as a result of migration, immigration, or as refugees?” Medenblik asked.
“Each year, thousands of people arrive in the United States and Canada as refugees or immigrants. Some refugees are children who arrive as unaccompanied minors, having been separated from their families abroad as they fled violence or disaster.
“How does the Bible help us navigate in this time and place? We will ask, from a variety of perspectives, ‘What does loving your migrant, immigrant, and refugee neighbor’ mean today?” Medenblik added.
In its planning sessions well before recent news events occurred, he said, the hope of the seminary in putting this event on has been to encourage people to think about issues and their responses as a Christian community from our Christian commitments.
Speakers at the conference will discuss their ministries and offer their thoughts on what Scripture says about welcoming strangers and people who are aliens, many of whom are fleeing violence and persecution, into a new country.
The keynote speaker will be Paul C. H. Lim, an associate professor of the history of Christianity at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and an award-winning historian.
In an interview with a nonpartisan think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, Lim discussed how evangelicals seem to be divided on ways to address immigration.
“I think there is a kind of ongoing engagement —” he said, “sometimes a painful or conflictual engagement about how to think about issues of Christian identity in politics in terms of sanctuary cities” and whether the church should become “a place of embracing those who are refugees and whose legal status may be in jeopardy.”
Another speaker will be Joel Huyser, Resonate Global Mission’s area director for Latin America and Asia.
Huyser says refugees and the mass migrations of peoples are changing demographics globally.
Today, he points out, there are 244 million people living outside of their country of origin. Another 65 million are refugees and are internally displaced in their own countries. The movement of people has brought people of different faiths into close contact with each other — not just globally but also in North America.
“This conference,” said Huyser, “will be an opportunity to have our imaginations awakened by stories of what God is doing through his people in response to this worldwide phenomenon as well as to network and learn from others who share the same desire for compassionate, Christ-centered witness to and among our neighbors from other religious communities.”
Jeffrey Bos, a missionary and scholar-in-residence at Calvin Seminary, will be speaking as well. “This conference,” he said, “will hopefully bring together scholars and practitioners to form a network of persons seeking to minister with persons living in diaspora.”
Although he is not scheduled to speak, Zachary King, director of Resonate Global Mission, said the issue of how to respond to the needs of immigrants, particularly their spiritual needs, is a priority for the agency.
"Resonate is very interested in sharing the gospel with immigrants who are starting new lives in the U.S. and Canada because this is a great opportunity to share Christ's love with people whom we could not easily reach because their countries of origin are closed to mission work,” he said. “Secondly, Scripture is clear that loving the immigrant is a key part of what it means to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
To learn more about the conference, click here.