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ERLC event: Serving refugees part of Great Commission

ERLC acting president Brent Leatherwood (top left) hosted panelists Bryant Wright (clockwise from top right), Matthew Soerens and Bri Stensrude to discuss how Christians can best s serve refugees in their communities.

NASHVILLE (BP) – Ministering to the world’s refugees can be an outgrowth of a Great Commission culture in a church, the audience for a Southern Baptist-sponsored webinar was told Tuesday (April 19).

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) hosted an online event titled “How Christians Can Serve Refugees” at a time when millions of people have fled Ukraine, Afghanistan and other countries as a result of wars and political instability. While many Ukrainians and Afghans have left their homes in recent months for nearby countries, some are seeking resettlement in the United States, providing American Christians opportunities to serve them and share the Gospel of Jesus.

“[I]f there’s one thing that has unified evangelical Christians through the years and Southern Baptists through the years, it is the Great Commission,” Send Relief President Bryant Wright told the webinar audience. “Evangelical culture is passionate about the Great Commission, and [ministry to refugees] is an area to build on that passion of the Great Commission, of sharing the Good News with folks.

“[L]et’s begin with Christ’s mission. Let’s begin with the Great Commission,” Wright said when asked to give advice to pastors. “And when that culture begins to develop in the life of the church, then ministry to refugees is just one part of carrying out Christ’s Great Commission.

“[W]hen a church becomes passionate about the Great Commission, and a church begins to go, a church begins to send people on mission to the different people groups around the earth, then that church begins to have a different heart about the world, a different heart about people who are different from us.”

The Great Commission refers to Jesus’ message to His followers at the close of the New Testament book of Matthew to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Care for refugees is one of the focus areas of Send Relief, the Southern Baptist Convention’s compassion ministry carried out through the cooperative efforts of the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. Send Relief encourages churches to proclaim the Gospel while meeting practical needs. Its current projects in 2022 are serving nearly 487,000 displaced people in Eastern Europe. Last year, Send Relief served 171,287 people in its ministry to care for refugees and mobilized 2,445 people to serve.

More than 26 million people around the world are refugees, and a total of 84 million people are forcibly displaced, nearly 50 million within their countries, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR reported April 20 that 5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. More than 10½ million people – nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population – have been displaced either within the country or abroad as refugees, according to the U.N. agency.

People “are forced to make the decision to migrate for survival. That is the overarching reason for migration,” said Bri Stensrud, director of Women of Welcome, a nonpartisan group that advocates for refugees and immigrants.

The specific reasons for migration include war, civil unrest, persecution, political power struggles and decisions by world leaders, such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, Stensrud said.

“All of these factors cause incalculable suffering. … And these are just some of the dynamics that continue to push people to migrate in order to survive,” she said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Taliban takeover after the U.S. departure from Afghanistan have come at a time when the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is ill equipped to welcome large numbers of people fleeing those and other countries.

Only 11,411 refugees were admitted to the United States in the fiscal year ending September 2021, marking the fewest refugee admissions since the 1980 enactment of a law establishing the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. The previous low was 11,814 in the year ending 2020.

The Trump Administration established four years of record-low ceilings – from 45,000 refugee admissions in the 2018 fiscal year to 30,000 in 2019 to 18,000 in 2020 and 15,000 in 2021. The Biden administration set a cap of 62,500 for last year but fell far short. President Biden has authorized the admission of as many as 125,000 refugees through September of this year.

“[T]he reality is right now there’s not the infrastructure in place to resettle the numbers of refugees that were resettled let’s say back in 1980 when this country took in more than 200,000 refugees coming out of Vietnam,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, an evangelical organization that is one of nine groups that work with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. The United States probably won’t resettle nearly 125,000 refugees this year, primarily because of the lack of overseas processing, he said.

The historic lows in refugees resettling in this country in recent years have resulted in resettlement organizations laying off staff and closing offices, Soerens told the online audience. “[W]e really need to rebuild that infrastructure.”

Refugee resettlement in the United States is a complicated, lengthy process with “lots of security checks, lots of background checks” that normally requires a year to two or three years, Soerens said. “The reality is our government knows a great deal about each person who comes in through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.”

Regarding security concerns about refugees, Soerens said about 3 million refugees have been resettled in this country since 1980, and “not a single one has taken the life of an American citizen in a terrorist attack.”

It is important for Christians to know “it’s the government’s decision of who comes in,” Wright said.  “But the church’s role is very different from the government. The church’s role is to love our neighbor.”

Christians can serve refugees by investing in organizations such as Send Relief and World Relief, as well as by showing up in their communities, Stensrud said.

“There is no silver bullet solution to the global crisis that is happening to people, expectedly, unexpectedly,” she told the online audience. “And so we’ve got to kind of retrain our thoughts and our minds to slow down and say, ‘This is a long-game approach of investing in people’s lives.’

“I think we make it complicated, and people really just need our presence. [If Christians] discipline ourselves into showing up in some uncomfortable spaces, I think the Lord is going to prove Himself faithful.”

World Relief seeks to empower the local church to serve refugees by members greeting them when they arrive, setting up housing, helping them find jobs, assisting their children in school and aiding them in adjusting to a new culture, Soerens said.

For the next five months, Send Relief is providing coaching to help churches minister to Afghans resettled in their communities. Churches interested in being trained may complete a contact form at sendrelief.org.

Messengers to the 2016 SBC Annual Meeting adopted a resolution that urged Southern Baptist “churches and families to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes as a means to demonstrate to the nations that our God longs for every tribe, tongue, and nation to be welcomed at His throne.” Messengers to the 2018 meeting reaffirmed that resolution.

Brent Leatherwood, the ERLC’s acting president, moderated the conversation on refugees.

Brandon Elrod, public relations consultant with the North American Mission Board, contributed to this article.