Though we are mostly a country of immigrants, immigration reform has remained a divisive issue for two decades. Based on news reports, some might think that most American Christians oppose immigration. But in reality, it’s the opposite. The active response of many faithful Christians to the current influx of Afghan refugees shows the point.
Even as Afghanistan has faded from the headlines, the work of welcoming and supporting those refugees continues in earnest. Christians and churches have been on the frontlines of welcoming brave Afghans, perhaps up to 95,000, who have risked everything for a new life here.
As with past generations of Christians who fled persecution, these Afghans are likewise fleeing persecution in search of safety, freedom, and opportunity. How Americans welcome them into our communities is and will be a test of our commitment to American ideals. For many Christians, it is also a test of the values at the core of our spiritual identities, whether we “walk” as well as “talk.”
For example, in the Washington D.C. area where we live, the outpouring of support for Afghans resettling here or transitioning through here has been literally overwhelming. Thousands of everyday Christians and hundreds of churches have stepped up quickly to help address urgent needs such as shelter, food, clothing, transportation, translation, healthcare, and other necessities. Just aligning and organizing these volunteers is a monumental task, and it’s not a challenge any single charity or government agency can address on its own.
In fact, this effort is another opportunity for the entire community to put aside differing theological, social, and political perspectives to work together for the good of those in urgent need. OneHeartDC has mobilized churches in this region to work alongside nonprofits and government under the banner “With Afghans” to bring hope and help to our new neighbors.
In this effort, OneHeartDC partnered with social services agencies, such as Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Relief Services, World Relief, and Ethiopian Community Development Council. These agencies have decades of experience in resettling refugees and whose mission and passion for this work arises from their faith.
These agencies have championed the cause of refugees even when it has been unpopular, focusing solely on the needs of those who arrive here fleeing persecution and violence and seeking to build a new life among us. They know, as do we, that refugees do not take jobs from Americans but instead add to our economy and to our social fabric, as generations of immigrants have in the past. They also know that to abandon this work would leave those they serve vulnerable to xenophobia and conspiracy theories that paint the men, women, and children seeking shelter here as a threat.
The reality is that this is not the work of a moment. Effective work with refugees involves long-term commitments to engage with Afghan families and help them adjust to their new lives in the United States by finding housing, healthcare, English classes, education, work, and meeting other needs.
Churches understand this and are in the work for the long haul, often partnering with individual families to help them learn basic skills of American life as well as making friends. As refugees begin to adjust, the work shifts to the longer, and in some ways, harder work of helping refugees settle into their new and very different lives. This includes education, cultural awareness training, trauma sensitivity training for volunteers so they can help in this process. The goal is to ensure refugees have the knowledge and tools to eventually meet their own needs.
In all this, Christians are motivated by the example and teaching of Jesus, who in his last discourse before the events of Palm Sunday that led to the cross on Good Friday and to resurrection on Easter implored his followers to welcome the stranger, in the knowledge that “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35, 39). It is a powerful reality of our faith to see the face of Jesus in the face of tired and disoriented Afghans arriving here often with only the clothes they wear. But that is what Jesus has said.
And so Christians pray and work — ora et labora, as St. Benedict wrote — to help Afghans, to serve new immigrants at our borders, and to welcome the strangers and feed the hungry and relieve the thirsty as if we were serving Jesus Himself. Loud voices of certain Christians in opposition to immigration do not reflect the views and quiet work of so many dedicated Christians in the Washington D.C. region and around the country, coming alongside our newest neighbors with practical assistance and heartfelt love.
Howie Levin serves as Executive Director of OneHeartDC (www.oneheartdc.org), a collaboration of over 750 churches, nonprofits and marketplace leaders seeking transformation and flourishing for all in the Washington D.C. region. Rev. Mary Amendolia Gardner is an Anglican priest and Director of OneHeartDC ‘With Afghans’ program, and Chris Sicks is pastor of One Voice Fellowship and serves at For the Nations DC, an English-language ministry for adults.
Rev. Mary Amendolia Gardner is a Spiritual Director with Coracle and previously served at the Falls Church Anglican for five years as a Pastoral Associate. She trained for ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, England, the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and Heythrop College, University of London. Mary earned an MA in Christian Spirituality with a focus on the visual arts and spiritual transformation. She loves to help others discover the good news of Jesus and introducing people to the visual arts through museum tours. Mary speaks at retreats, enjoys international travel, learning about other cultures and kayaking. She and her husband John are active in missions with Restoration Anglican.
Chris Sicks served on staff at Alexandria Presbyterian Church for 20 years. As Pastor of Mercy, he labored to show compassion in Word and deed to the congregation and community. He is founder and board president of For the Nations DC, offering English classes to refugees and immigrants four days a week, to help our new neighbors acclimate and discover the truth and love of Jesus. Chris is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary DC. Previously, he worked at Gospel Rescue Mission (homeless shelter and drug treatment program in Washington, DC) and ran a scholarship/mentoring program for inner-city youth. He’s been a newspaper editor, restaurant manager, and Army officer. Chris lost his first wife, Sara, to breast cancer. Now married to Naomi, they have four teenagers.