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Refugee Ministry: Where Is God Calling Us to Respond?

ESL instructor Katherine Kaiser of Church of the Mediator, Allentown, with students at the Refugee Community Center. The community art project pictured was initiated by student volunteers from Cedar Crest College.

Allentown is home to refugees from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burma (Myanmar), who speak Arabic, Kiswahili and multiple Burmese dialects. The Refugee Community Center at Church of the Mediator in Allentown is among the leading organizations responding to their needs.

The center, which grew out of an Arabic-English book drive in 2015, offers free community dinners, English as a Second Language classes, discussion groups and prayer. It is both a hub and catalyst for other activities.

“We each have to find that place where God is calling us to respond,” says the Rev. Twila Smith, Mediator’s missioner, who helped to organize and energize the diocese’s response to the influx of refugees.  “And I happen to be in a place right now where there are refugees who I encounter daily in this neighborhood. As churches, we are finding our call to respond in particular ways to people who are truly our neighbors. I think that’s a piece of discernment that we are all asked to be attentive to: where is God calling us to respond?”

The answer to that question has become more pressing as the Trump administration has moved to reduce the number of refugees entering the country and the funds available to assist them. The Refugee Community Center and several parishes in the diocese have responded by intensifying their efforts to support the newcomers.

The center looked to what it calls its “super-volunteers.”

“These are people who are coming from the community and from the church who have tremendous

Joan Roy of Grace, Allentown, tutors women from Syria at the Refugee Community Center.

Joan Roy of Grace, Allentown, tutors women from Syria at the Refugee Community Center.

gifts to offer,” Smith says. “Many of them have teaching backgrounds. Many of them have worked with people who are not native English speakers. We realized that one way we could respond to funding cuts was with volunteer support.”

The center held tutor training sessions which brought in volunteers from other churches, including Grace Episcopal Church, Allentown. “Because of this interest, I did a forum at Grace about refugee work, and both churches (Mediator and Grace) participated in Hijab Solidarity Day in January,” Smith says. “So there’s been a mutual regard and respect for refugees in the community.”

Grace plans to deepen its involvement in refugee ministry by renting space at a below-market rate to Bethany Christian Services, the local branch of the U. S. Refugee and Immigrant Resettlement Program. “There was a real interest in our conversations at Grace over the last year in knowing that we do need income, but utilizing that space as opportunity for ministry and collaborative work,” Smith says. “So when this came to the table it was so wonderful to watch the vestry members and everybody who encountered this say ‘of course!’

“Geographically, Mediator and Grace bridge the area where refugees are settling.  And now we have this more outward and visible sign of connection: a covenant relationship between the two parishes, the usual work of refugee ministry.”

Smith is quick to point out that church communities located where “hands-on” work with refugees is not possible can also do vitally important work. She will soon participate in a pilot training program offered by Episcopal Migration Ministries to explore ways that churches can approach refugee ministry.

“It is no small thing to commit to prayer,” she says. “It is no small thing to have a formation opportunity, to introduce a particular book in a book group. I believe those open up possibilities for the ministry that may be calling us, and so I do think in some areas the advocacy work is hugely important, and I don’t believe it should ever be seen as less important than hands-on work. I think what is important is that we’re building a network of support and connection.”

“At the Refugee Center, we had a box of supplies that had come in from another church arrive just before one of our ESL classes, and I was explaining to a family that, ‘these are gifts that came to us for this center and for all of you, so that we can continue to do this work.’ One of the kids asked me to show him on a map where the gifts were from, so we pulled out a globe. Pointing to all those places on the map was a way of showing that there is a network of people…who are saying to the refugees, ‘your presence here matters.’ It wasn’t simply that the gifts came, it was that others cared.”

Milford is one of those locations in which “hands-on” work with refugees is not geographically practical. But when the Rev. Van Bankston, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Milford, was asked by community members how to help refugees, he knew where to direct them.

“They wanted to help refugees, but could not find any local families to connect with,” say Bankston. “I told them about the work of the Episcopal Church going on in Allentown, and introduced them to Twila Smith.” The Milford group has delivered needed supplies to Allentown, and in May will host a dinner to raise funds for the Refugee Center.

At Church of the Mediator, connecting to community members outside the church has been an unexpected result of working with refugees. “What we’re finding is that there are as many people in the community outside of the church as those within who have interest in the kind of community they want to live in, who desire working for that greater good,” Smith says. “And they’re eager to partner with the church in doing that. And that may not translate into people in the pews on Sunday, yet they’re feeling very connected with church side-by-side in this ministry. And that’s been a huge awakening.”

One community member successfully applied for a grant on the center’s behalf. “We got a check in the mail, and didn’t realize that it was coming,” Smith says. The refugee ministry has also allowed Mediator to build relationships with other organizations, partnering with local colleges, the neighborhood Bikeworks after-school program, Head Start, a youth soccer association and others.

“Many of the people who are coming alongside us in this ministry are starting to ask God questions. They are starting to wrestle with their beliefs,” says Smith. “They’re getting deeper in their own questions about our spiritual connections, their understandings of God, the kind of life we’re called to live, what that means in community with one another, and what it means to practice that.”