Lombard (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church in the Chicago area joined with Loop Church’s Welcoming the Stranger Mission Community to hold a panel discussion Thurs., Feb. 22, titled “Refugees and Public Policy: How Do We Respond Biblically?”
About 75 people attended the event, which featured five panelists including Kelsey Herbert, an immigration mobilizer for the CRC’s Office of Social Justice.
“While refugee issues are not currently highlighted in the 24-hour news cycle, we cannot forget that we are still facing the world’s greatest refugee crisis,” said Herbert.
“It’s important to raise awareness that the U.S. is failing to uphold the number of refugees we committed to welcome this year — and to remember as Christians that we can be speaking up to our elected officials to hold them accountable.”
In September 2017, the Trump administration announced it would admit 45,000 refugees in FY18, the lowest admission goal in U.S. history. Since 1980, the average annual resettlement admissions goal has been 96,229 refugees. The U.S. is currently on pace to admit just 20,000 individuals for FY18. The total expected arrivals through January 2018 was 15,000, but only 6,704 refugees have been admitted.
“The hope was that attendees would learn the facts about refugee resettlement, hear the personal stories of those who have lived through this reality, and discuss as Christians what a faithful response looks like,” said Herbert. “We are grateful for Loop Church’s leadership in organizing this event, and we appreciate their heart for the refugee community.”
In 2016 the church near downtown Chicago cosponsored a Syrian family and is in the process of working with World Renew and a CRC congregation in Canada to sponsor the sister of the family.
“Our Syrian refugee friends have become like family to us, and they are the reason we advocate, from organizing this panel to meeting with our members of Congress,” said Claire McWilliams, a panelist and founder of Loop Church's Welcoming the Stranger Mission Community.
Loop was moved to create the Welcoming the Stranger Mission Community as a way to build a support network for their new Syrian friends and to further explore how as Christians they could learn more and take action as a community. They have a goal to do one action per month, whether it be to read a book together, attend a legislative meeting, or organize a panel.
“We hosted a similar event last fall in the city and felt passionate about bringing a panel to other CRCs because we believe it’s important to combat misinformation around refugee resettlement and spread the message of welcome throughout the church,” stated McWilliams.
Peter Zigterman, another member of the Welcoming the Stranger Mission Community and a caseworker at World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency, opened the panel, stating, “As Christians working through any issue, we have a responsibility to investigate the truth and dispel misinformation” -- a theme that continued throughout the evening.
Zigterman also pointed to the power of relationships in forming beliefs about resettlement: “My experiences working directly with refugees have deeply shaped my views on this issue. Listening to their stories and sharing in their journey enriches our perspective and understanding.”
“All of a sudden,” he said, “the refugee crisis isn’t just ‘an issue.’ Relationships force us to confront impacts that different policies have on our friends and fellow image bearers [of God]. These experiences also give firsthand evidence that refugees are not, in fact, a burden but, rather, a blessing to us and our society.”
Also on the panel was Kisimba Musbota, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who shared parts of her journey and the struggles she has faced.
As a child, she walked with her family to the Zambia border, where they received refugee status and resided for 17 years. At age 24, just two months ago, Kisimba was resettled in Chicago with some of her family members, including her younger sister. They are still waiting for their brother to join them in the U.S. After just a short time of being in the U.S., Kisimba is working to help support her family.
Mark Brouwer, pastor at Loop Church and another member of the panel, reminded everyone attending the discussion that the Old Testament prophets spoke frequently of how God takes sides, “pretty much always being on the side of the marginalized and oppressed.”
In following the demands of their faith and the words of the prophets, Christians are called to reach out to people in need. “If we have the chance to do this, and we don't — if we turn a blind eye to people in need — then we're on the wrong side,” said Brouwer.
In Amos 5, he added, “we hear God telling the Israelites that he actually ‘hated’ their worship gatherings. It wasn't because they were insincere or idolatrous. . . . It was because their worship wasn't matched by care for the poor and the outcast.”
Angela Buikema, a deacon at Elmhurst (Ill.) CRC, was in the audience at the panel discussion.
“Loop Church’s initiative and leadership in building relationships and supporting their refugee neighbors in the city are inspiring,” she said.
In addition, Buikema said she appreciated the Office of Social Justice and World Relief, the area resettlement agency, for the work they do in advocating for refugees.
Buikema recognized that “there are many refugee families living near us in the suburbs too, and we need to seriously examine the ways that we can welcome and support them as neighbors as they rebuild their lives.”
The event ended with panelists encouraging congregations to consider how they can be active in developing relationships with refugees and in advocacy to our members of Congress.
Nathan Hill, a deacon at Lombard CRC, reflected, “At first it was a little sad and shocking to hear about the long and hard journey for refugees to make it to a safe place to live.
“But then, hearing the experts on the panel share about the opportunities we have as individuals or as a church to help our fellow neighbors, I felt more empowered to offer help, something that Christ has asked us all who are able, to do. Even if we can only help one family, it will demonstrate how Christians act when we follow God’s call.”
To learn more about refugees and how you can get involved in helping them in both the U.S. and Canada, visit the Office of Social Justice site justice.crcna.org/refugees.