Despite the legal battle Texas leaders wage with the federal government over the resettlement of Syrian refugees, many Baptists retain their tireless commitment to share the Gospel with their Muslim neighbors.
Texas has received 238 refugees from Syria since 2012, ranking it second highest in the nation, according to a National Public Radio report. Another twenty-one Syrians were slated to arrive by December 11. Hundreds more will likely follow in the coming year.
In September, President Barack Obama ordered his administration to prepare for the admittance of up to ten thousand Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016, due to the humanitarian crisis created by Syria’s civil war.
A few days after the November 13 terror attack in Paris, France, Texas Governor Greg Abbott joined thirty other state governors in a call to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees until stricter immigration policies could be implemented. “We’re not going to accept any more refugees from this dangerous zone,” he said.
A Syrian passport was found near the site of one of the Paris bombings, and Islamic militants have allegedly expressed intent to infiltrate the West while posing as refugees, prompting heightened safety concerns by many state leaders.
Ken Paxton, Texas attorney general, filed a lawsuit against the federal government December 2 to stop the relocation of Syrian refugees into the state, saying resettlement agencies failed to consult with state authorities in advance.
The following week, US presidential candidate Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas, announced December 8, in a joint press conference with Texas Governor Abbott, a piece of legislation that would require the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to notify states of incoming, eligible refugees twenty-one days in advance of their arrival.
The bill, called the State Refugee Security Act of 2015 (S.2363), would also allow governors to reject refugees if the governor of a particular state was not satisfied with the eligibility vetting process. Sponsored by Cruz, the bill was read to the Senate and assigned to the Committee on the Judiciary on December 8, according to Congress.gov.
In addition, Cruz proposed a three-year moratorium on the resettlement of refugees from any country where terrorist groups control a significant amount of territory.
Paxton made a second attempt at blocking incoming Syrian refugees by federal suit, citing reports allegedly confirming attempts by Islamic militants to infiltrate the US through the refugee program.
US District Judge David Godbey rejected the action December 9, saying the reports were “largely speculative hearsay.”
Tim Ahlen, pastor of Forest Meadow Baptist Church in Dallas and Unreached People Groups consultant for the Dallas Baptist Association, said Forest Meadow encounters many Muslim refugees—some Syrian—through their church planting efforts and English-as-Second-Language program. Ahlen also serves as the executive director for a collaborative church planting effort called the Great Commission Initiative.
A total of twenty-one Syrian refugees were scheduled to be relocated to Dallas and Houston during December, according to news reports.
Nathan Lino, lead pastor of Northeast Houston Baptist Church and president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said ministry to Syrian refugees is complex, and political controversy has created a “crisis of belief.”
He explained in a blog post on the church’s website: “In our culture’s crisis of belief, two main lines of argument have broken out: one that advocates national security and one that urges compassion and hospitality to Muslim refugees.”
Lino, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, was a trustee for the International Mission Board (IMB) for eight years. He said part of his time with the IMB was spent on the North Africa and Middle East strategy committee. He has taken numerous trips to the region.
“They are my great passion,” said Lino. “I’ve stood on a mountain overlooking Syria and heard the ka-boom of a bomb, and I’ve watched the mushroom cloud rise in the air. Women and children were murdered by that bomb, men trying to provide for their families too. . . .
“If my mind has been conformed to the mind of Christ, I am, like Him, going to look at humans suffering and feel lots of compassion and grief and be moved to do something about it,” he said.
Lino’s view is shared by his congregation as they reach out to refugees in their city in practical, evangelistic ways.
Though the ministry is important, he said, it’s not easy.
One of the difficulties in ministering to Syrian refugees is finding them. “Our city is huge,” he said, “and it’s not advertised where they are.”
Several members of the church devote themselves to locating and engaging refugees. They cooperate with the local resettling agency to serve incoming refugees. Volunteers often pick them up from the airport and help refugees move into their new homes.
The team helps war-weary families acclimate to life in the US. Learning public transportation schedules and registering children for school are small but vital activities that Northeast Houston church members help newly-arrived families accomplish.
Life for non-English speaking refugees can be difficult and overwhelming. Volunteers do their best to build relationships with them, “so we can get to the Gospel over time,” said Lino.
The church has also put together more than 150 shoeboxes with presents for refugee children in Houston. The boxes include contact information for the family that gathered the gifts. They hope to befriend the children and their families.
Though Northeast Houston’s outreach is close to his heart, national security is an equal concern for Lino.
“I have had personal encounters with Muslim radicals in Iraq, the West Bank, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan,” he said. “I’ve also encountered them in London, Paris, and Marseille. I’ve been told not a few times, ‘when we get done in these countries, we will come to America and the blood of your children will flow.’”
He continued, “I have major concerns about our national security. I want refugees and immigrants of any kind to be thoroughly vetted. I think those who want to be considered for asylum in our country should recognize that terrorists are hard to detect and practice the same religion as the asylum seekers, and therefore understand and accept our desire for asylum seekers to be properly vetted.”
Immigration policies are not abstract for Lino; they’re personal. He was born in South Africa, and his family immigrated to the US when he was in middle school.
“My family was vetted by the US, and I’m grateful,” he said. “I do not think it is at all un-Christian to protect my wife, children, aging parents, loved ones, and the nation to which I’ve pledged allegiance.”