How Should the US Church Respond to the Refugee Crisis?

A blanket, a fanny pack, a broken cell phone, diapers, and a pacifier for her son. These were the only items Jumana Haidy, a 30-year-old refugee mother, had in her possession for a trek from Syria to Europe when interviewed. She, like the other 4 million registered refugees from Syria, has been making the journey to Eastern and Western Europe to escape war and famine.

As Pope Francis visits the U.S. this week, he will surely deliver a call to action on the refugee crisis. In Europe, he recently challenged “every” parish, religious community, monastery, and sanctuary to take in one refugee family. What if the Christian church answered this challenge? Would it not be one of the great triumphs of humankind’s compassion? The idealism of this ideation certainly outpaces its realism, but the severity and complexity of the problem still requires a response, especially from Christians.

On September 13, churches across the U.S. were encouraged by We Welcome Refugees to raise awareness among congregants of the refugee crisis. The movement started with sponsorship from organizations such as the Justice Conference, National Association of Evangelicals, and World Relief to “position the global church as a key agent in the current Europe/Syria refugee crisis.” We Welcome Refugees advocates for radical hospitality from Christians by taking the following actions: 

  • Partnering church-to-church,
  • Supporting a refugee family, 
  • Advocating for changes to the refugee legal regime, and
  • Welcoming refugees currently in one’s community.

Unfortunately, the specifics to such proposals have not been illuminated or explained. Jesus’ commission to feed, clothe, and look after those in need is clear. The Church’s response to this crisis has not been clear.

Thankfully, the possibilities for response are already being modeled in Germany. The willkommen culture taking root across the country has been a beautiful display of humanity. Germans have welcomed refugees at the borders with smiles, toys, and food. One of the most famous football teams in the world, Bayern Munich, welcomed refugee children onto the pitch during their September 12 match. German universities have offered free tuition to refugees and, now, Berliners have created an AirBnB equivalent for refugees to be housed. Can you imagine what the backlash would be in the U.S. if these ideas were proposed, let alone implemented?

U.S. response, both official and unofficial, has not been as imaginative or sincere. President Obama has proposedto take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year while five of the top candidates for president in 2016 have saidzero refugees should be accepted. Germany has proposed to take in 800,000 refugees. Given such a disparity of responses between signatories of the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, what could and should be the guiding principle for welcoming refugees? Washington Post E.J. Dionne recently posed this very question with the following response: 

“…it is the right thing to do, because it’s in keeping with who we say we are, and because we remain collectively a wealthy nation and can afford it. Pride in our moral claims is not limited to any economic class. In fact, the least advantaged are often the most generous.” 

When fleeing Syria, Jumana Haidy was likely hungry, likely thirsty, and certainly needed to be clothed. Speaking on the Mount of Olives, just 100 miles from the modern day Syrian border, Jesus challenged his disciples to feed, clothe, and look after those without homes like Jumana. Sure, America may be geographically isolated from the flow of refugees and migrants from Syria, but this does not mean we, as American Christians, should be isolated also. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said, “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” Americans of all faiths and of no faith should ask the same question: What would failure on the refugee issue bring to the shores of America? Maybe more importantly, what is the America we wish for?

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.