As we start a conversation in our churches about refugees, it is helpful to identify some background knowledge. This section provided definitions, background information, and links to further resources.
Who is a refugee?
A refugee is someone who:
- Has been forcibly displaced from his or her country because of persecution, natural disaster (famine, drought, earthquake, etc.), war, or violence
- Has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group
- Cannot return home or is afraid to do so
(Definition from the UN Commission for Human Rights)
Who is not a refugee?
A refugee is not someone who:
- Leaves home voluntarily
- Leaves home in search of a better opportunity
- Is displaced within their own country
When someone flees because of persecution, war, or violence, where do they go?
It is often a perilous journey when people flee due to persecution, war, or violence. Many leave with just the clothes on their back. Travel is difficult and often people survive without food or water for long periods of time. The journey can also be dangerous, putting people in vulnerable situations.
Refugees are a distinct class of people who have crossed international boundaries as they flee their homes. The UN estimates that every day 28,300 people are forced to flee their homes due to violence and/or persecution. Many people who have fled their original communities end up becoming “internally displaced.” Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are in most ways still stranded with only the clothes on their back, but they are able stay within the confines of their own country. (For more stats, go here.)
Many people who are fleeing home find themselves in refugee camps. Although designed to be temporary places, camps are often hastily assembled near the borders where refugees are entering, and the reality is that many refugee camps have long-term residents. Some refugees remain there for up to 20 years. Children are born, elderly people die, and life does not stop moving even as people long for conflict to end so they can return home. In 2018, about 2.6 million refugees live in camps around the world, according to the UN. Life can often be very difficult in these camps. In addition, conflict between different groups can persist even within these camps, adding to the significant feelings of instability and “stuckness” that people are already experiencing.
From refugee camps, some people are eventually able to return home. Very few are resettled in new countries.
Hearing from Covenant voices
To better understand the full story of the refugee experience, it may be helpful to hear stories from those who have been or who are refugees themselves. Click here to access the stories of brave men and women throughout our denomination who have become refugees and survived perilous journeys.
How do refugees find themselves in the US?
Most of us living in the United States might only meet refugees when they move into our communities. This report from Pew Research Center gives a helpful overview of the numbers of refugees who have come to the United States since the 1980 Refugee Act was passed.
Though we have a formal process for receiving refugees in the United States, the process is quite difficult.
For a quick snapshot of the process, here’s a video outlining the nine steps to refugee resettlement.
In addition, this is what the UN says about US refugee resettlement on their website:
The process of refugee resettlement to the US is a lengthy and thorough process that takes approximately two years and involves numerous US governmental agencies.
Refugees do not choose the country in which they would like to live. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, identifies the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement and then makes recommendations to select countries.
Once a refugee is recommended to the US for resettlement, the US government conducts a thorough vetting of each applicant. This process takes between 12 and 24 months and includes:
- Screening by eight federal agencies including the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI
- Six security database checks and biometric security checks screened against US federal databases
- Medical screening
- Three in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security officers
It can be surprising to learn how extensive this process is. Do you know if there are refugees living in your community? The Office of Refugee Resettlement (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) has a comprehensive list of agencies in each state who work with newly arrived refugees.
What about Canada?
Canada passed their own Immigration Act in 1978 two years before the US. In 2016, they resettled 46,700 people, the largest number of refugees in their history.
You can check out their history of refugee resettlement and see the statistics here.
Refugees: A Biblical Perspective
Throughout the Bible God reminds his people to remember their own refugee journey. The exact word used throughout the Old Testament in Hebrew is ger, meaning “sojourner.” It appears 92 times.
God keeps reminding the Israelites:
You must neither wrong nor oppress a foreigner living among you, for you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt. —Exodus 22:20
He secures justice for the orphan and the widow; he loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing. Therefore, you are to love the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. —Deuteronomy 10:18-19
When we hear stories of modern-day refugees, we may not think immediately of the Israelites, but their story is similar in some ways. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and finally were able to escape their captors. They then traveled a long journey through the desert before arriving in the Promised Land. In the same way refugees today are fleeing violence and persecution. Frequently they must take long, arduous journeys to escape. And their journey can be further prolonged if they end up in refugee camps, unable to return home or go to a new country.
The Bible makes clear that people in these situations are important to God and that we honor God by taking care of the stranger or the foreigner among us. That’s easier to do when we pause to remember our own history—both as Christians and as Covenanters.
Jesus himself was a descendant of refugees, and he also became a refugee as a young child as well. We read in Matthew 2 the story of King Herod, who felt threatened by the birth of a child who was said to be the King of the Jews. In his alarm, Herod asked the wise men to go and find this supposed king. When the wise men decided not to tell Herod they had indeed found him, Herod became so enraged that he decreed that every male child under the age of two was to be killed. But God had warned Joseph in a dream of the threat to Jesus’s life. He took Mary and Jesus, and they fled to Egypt, staying there until after Herod died.
This call to love the foreigner is even more pronounced when we consider our denomination’s history. Truly, the immigrant experience is our experience. The Evangelical Covenant Church was founded by Swedish immigrants who came as foreigners to a strange land. Today the Evangelical Covenant Church is proud to be a church represented in different nations, and even in refugee camps. In the US we are no longer a Swedish church—we are the denominational home to a diverse group of churches, and many churches comprised of immigrants and refugees as well.
The same call that God gave the Israelites calls us today: “Therefore, you are to love the foreigner.”
A Prayer: We Remember
Jesus, today we remember the Israelites, the people called by God out of slavery and into the Promised Land. We remember that while they were foreigners in Egypt, they were persecuted and oppressed. We remember this story as our story, as your story, and as a call to love the foreigners in our own land.
We remember their story of flight, when you parted the Red Sea to help them reach safety. We pray for the thousands of refugees who today have also taken flight from a land they call home, and we pray that you will be with them and help them reach safety.
We remember how you provided for your people in the desert when they felt stuck, unable to reach the Promised Land and unable to return back to where they came from. We ask that you would be with the millions of refugees who are today living in a stuck place, in refugee camps, in between their home and wherever home will be next.
Jesus, today we remember you, and how your own family fled in fear for their lives. We pray that you would help us to remember your story, for in remembering you, we remember to honor and love those who have fled like you. Grant us the joy of welcoming others like you into our communities and into our lives. We remember in Hebrews 13:2 where you commanded us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (NIV).
Jesus, today we remember the history and legacy of our church and of our denomination. We pray that we would be united as one. We pray that we would remember deep in our bones the story of where we have come from. We remember your call today and our history, and we claim that therefore we are to love the foreigner, including those who are refugees.
Help us to know how.
For more resources on a biblical perspective on immigration and refugees, consider reading:
Now, as then, we are an immigrant church. A CovChurch.TV video.
Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate, a book by Matthew Soerens
Seeking Refuge by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Issam Smeir
Church Leader Resources on the Refugee Crisis and Immigration, from World Relief
The Refugee Journey: A Simulated Experience
At CHIC 2018, students participated in the Refugee Journey, following the stories of Syrian and Sudanese refugees as they flee the violence and conflict in their countries.
Serve Globally has created ways for you to recreate this experience at your churches. This is an activity designed for your entire church that can help us to understand and remember the refugee story.
This simulation follows the stories of Syrian and Sudanese refugees as these are two of the refugee stories Covenant World Relief is mostly closely connected to currently.
You can contact Covenant World Relief at covchurch.org/refugeejourney for instructions on how to set up the Refugee Journey.
Another resource, Kids Helping Kids: Refugees, is a twelve-part supplemental children’s ministry resource. It helps children ask, What does it mean to flee your home? How does someone become a refugee? What is life like in a refugee camp? You can download those resources here.
As you debrief the Refugee Journey, these questions will help you dive deeper.
- What did you feel as you participated in this experience?
- Was there anything you found surprising as you experienced the refugee journey?
- If the refugee you learned about were resettled in your community, what do you think they would find challenging?
- What did you know or think about refugees before this experience, and how has your perspective shifted?
- If you had to flee your country, could you imagine what that would be like? Where would you go and what would you do?
- How can we honor our common story by loving the foreigners among us in our community?
- How can we be involved in the work God is doing around the world in the lives of refugees?
Refugees: Community Commitments
When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn into two, signifying that Christ bridged the divide between us and God forever. It was a clear message that God is for all people, and that all people can now access God equally.
Just as God broke down the barriers of separation between us and God, we should ask ourselves, what barriers exist between us and others? Often the world tells us to be afraid of people we do not know and places we do not understand, but if we as a church are to be united in Christ and united with each other, we must commit to tearing down barriers that separate us!
Who are the strangers among us?
Whom have we forgotten?
Whom have we failed to loved?
Let us search ourselves for fear and root it out, for we are one in Christ.
Let us search ourselves for biases and barriers that separate us from others, and banish them from our hearts, for we are called to love the stranger.
Let us tear down the barriers that divide us, for God tore down the curtain so that we could be united with God.
Lord our God, who stopped at nothing and even sacrificed your Son so that we could know you, hear our prayer.
All: Lord, hear our prayer
We ask for forgiveness for the times we have forgotten, marginalized, and built barriers between ourselves and others—often because we don’t understand them.
All: Lord, hear our prayer.
We ask for new eyesight as we walk into the world around us. We pray that you would transform our hearts and our minds, and remind us to love those who are strangers in our midst.
All: Lord, hear our prayer.
We ask for your mercy and grace to be with those who have suffered, those who were afraid and had to run from their homes. We pray that you will bring them miracles and signs of your hope on their journeys today, wherever they may be.
All: Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray that we would not live in fear, but instead love with abandon as you have also loved us.
All: Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray that you would allow us to see you in every person we come across. As you ripped the curtain in two to unleash your Spirit upon the world, we pray that we would rip down the curtains in our life that hinder the Spirit of God from flowing through us and into the world.
All: Lord, hear our prayer.
We will go into the world.
We will love with abandon.
We will live without fear.
(Optional activity: Each person rips a piece of cloth in half at the end of the prayer as a reminder of their commitment to unity in Christ together.)