Ministry to refugees has been a long-term commitment of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
In the 1970s, we adopted a Vietnamese family when thousands were streaming into the country seeking refuge from their war-torn land.
A house across the street was purchased in the 1980s to serve as a home for Baptist missionaries on furlough. Not long thereafter, we purchased the house for families who couldn’t afford long hotel stays when a family member had extended hospitalization at Wake Forest Baptist Health Center.
More recently, we partnered with World Relief, a faith-based resettlement organization, to “host” two refugee families – a Christian family from Ethiopia and a Muslim family from Syria.
As the refugee crisis infiltrated the news on American shores, many in our congregation were asking how they could help.
Led by two of our younger deacons – a female chair and male colleague – we established two Good Neighbor Teams in partnership with World Relief.
These ad hoc teams were populated totally by eager volunteers who wanted to bear witness to their Christian faith and reach out to help these new neighbors.
They began work immediately to furnish housing, provide initial food supplies, mentor the family in cultural assimilation and help with routine things like obtaining a Social Security card and enrolling children in school.
Three members of our church and an assigned translator met the Syrian family at the airport in Charlotte around midnight on July 29. They were taken to their rental home, which our team had furnished through Facebook solicitations and appeals through Sunday school classes.
We met Nasur, the 29-year-old father, his 22-year-old wife, Nour, and three children ages 7, 6 and 2.
Nasur was a tile-layer in Syria and had served one stint in the Syrian army already. He told me when the civil war escalated, he had three choices: serve in the Syrian army, join the rebels or flee the country.
They fled to Jordan where they lived in a refugee camp for one month. The conditions were so bad that they left and found an apartment in Jordan, where they lived until they received approval to come to the U.S.
Recently, I visited the family in their rental home along with our deacon chair, Anna Rubin, and her two little boys. Anna and Nour talked and watched the children while I sat in the den with a translator, Ali, and Nasur.
I said to Nasur, “I am Don Gordon, the pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church where Anna attends. As a Christian, I welcome you to our community.”
Ali translated and Nasur smiled and said, “Thank you” in Arabic.
I continued, “I want you to know the church of Jesus Christ is not bound by the decrees of the government. You may hear things on the news or through your community that you are not welcome and you should be afraid. I want you to know the church of Jesus Christ loves all people and we reach out to you and your family with love, peace and friendship.”
Although they have been the beneficiaries of many Christians demonstrating this spirit of welcome, peace and friendship, this spoken word from me seemed to create a physical reaction of relief.
The Muslim world gives a high degree of honor to their religious clerics. To have a religious cleric of the Christian community speak these words seemed to be a crucial salve to the heated political climate in which they now lived.
Another Good Neighbor Team met our Ethiopian family at the Greensboro airport on Aug. 29, 2016.
Opiti, the father, was 56 years old. His wife, Adut, was 33. Their three sons and one daughter were 13, 10, 7 and 3 years old.
This family had been located in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, one of the largest UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency) refugee camps in the world with an estimated population around 185,000. The family had fled the Anuak genocide of December 2003, losing to death Opiti’s father and brother.
This Christian family had lived in refugee camps for 13 years before they made it to our shores. Their children had known nothing but life in refugee camps since their birth.
Opiti has become employed at the Joyce Foods Chicken processing plant in Clemmons, where he works with several other African refugees making $10 per hour.
World Relief donated a used car to the family and, after a dozen tries, Opiti finally passed his driver’s license examination.
The entire Division of Motor Vehicles erupted in applause when he passed his exam because they had seen him come persistently each day until he could finally pass.
Opiti’s family attends our church. The children are in Sunday school classes with their age group and sing in children’s choirs. They are quiet, primarily because they are still learning English and their life in this church of middle to upper-middle class white people is so foreign to them.
We recognize the government’s right, even its duty, to secure its legitimate borders and protect its citizens. However, we also respond to the call of God to help the stranger and give aid to the needy.
Those two ideas do not have to clash with one another, and they certainly do not in this case.
Both these refugee families have come into our country through approved processes followed by both international and national vetting agencies.
We believe we are following the commands of Jesus Christ and strengthening our nation at the same time. As far as we are concerned, this is a win for everyone.
Don Gordon is senior pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on local churches / Christian organizations and immigration.
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