Since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth to escape religious persecution, America has been a haven for refugees. This year alone, the U.S. has welcomed more than 70,000 of them.
As a result of decades of political violence, hundreds of thousands of the Karen [kah–ren] people, the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar (formerly Burma), have been forced to flee the country. In 2007, the U.S. began allowing approximately 15,000 of them to resettle in America every year.
To accommodate these numbers, the U.S. government has depended on non-profit groups — mainly religious organizations and churches — to help the Karen and other refugee populations assimilate into American culture. This has been an enormous opportunity for the church to extend Christ’s welcome to the outcast.
One church in Greensboro, North Carolina, has done just that. In response to the influx of 3,000 refugees in their community, Friendly Avenue Baptist Church decided to sponsor one Karen family by helping them with basic needs, such as transportation, apartment set up, and language assistance.
Soon the church had three refugee families coming every Sunday and decided it was time to plant a church for those who spoke Karen. Over the course of the next two years, the church plant grew to 200, as word spread that Friendly Avenue really was friendly, a place where outsiders felt welcome.
Bryan Presson, 20-year missionary in Thailand and pastor of the Karen church, noticed that language barriers often forced his congregants to take low-paying jobs in factories located hours from their homes. And cultural illiteracy made them vulnerable to phone or mail scams. And they frequently faced prejudice and scorn from neighbors who weren’t excited about sharing jobs and resources in a downturned economy.
Friendly Avenue began tackling these barriers by offering ESL classes, transportation assistance, and advocacy. Presson said, “Whenever somebody comes to the U.S., they’re needy . . . It’s an opportunity to show kindness.”
Friendly Avenue is just one of the many churches across the country who are choosing to “welcome the stranger,” a distinctive that sets God’s people apart, as described in Deuteronomy 10:18. As increasing numbers of refugees seek asylum in the U.S., Christ’s followers have a unique opportunity to wisely and sensitively welcome the strangers in our midst.
Here are a few ways you might participate: Number one, visit the online Refugee Processing Center to find out if there are any refugees living in your area. Why not sponsor a family or start an ESL class? Perhaps there’s a church already doing these things that you can partner with. Consider becoming an advocate to help new residents steer clear of scams. Or reach out through an after-school program to the children and teens of refugees who are being bombarded with conflicting messages about what it means to be an American.
What better way to show Christ’s love to those in need? And the blessing will not be just theirs. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”