Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance
Today we begin a four-part series:
WELCOME: stories of Refugee & Immigrant Response.
Over the next year, we will be in conversation with some California Disciples,
and their ecumenical collaborators, as they welcome an Afghan family into their community,
and offer radical hospitality and welcome to new neighbors in their midst.
We’ll also feature a few short highlights with each story,
showing the ways other Disciples are doing the same work in their own communities.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
In late 2021 the situation in Afghanistan was dire. The Taliban entered Kabul, seizing control as the Afghan government collapsed, U.S. and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan, and Afghan allies and citizens fled the country in massive numbers. As this humanitarian crisis unfolded, Disciples asked how to help.
Church of the Foothills, a Disciples/UCC yoked church in Santa Ana CA, was moved to respond and turned to Week of Compassion. Connecting them with other area Disciples at First Christian Church, Orange, and providing an Afghan Welcome support grant, Week of Compassion was able to provide resources to move these churches toward a greater response. At the same time, Rev. Bill Jacobs, interim minister at Foothills, was in touch with other local congregations - and even had one church find them and ask to help too!
This partnership, now four churches strong - Church of the Foothills, First Christian Orange, Irvine United Church of Christ, and Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Fellowship - got congregational pastors and leadership on board and started their work. Meeting regularly via Zoom, they crafted a plan to bring the Afghan family they now sponsor - two adult women in their 30s, and their parents in their 70s - to independence.
The congregational partnership works with their local resettlement agency professionals to provide assistance like accompanying people to doctors appointments, providing quarters for family to do laundry, assisting with documentation for medical support for aging parents, job support, appropriate clothing from thrift stores, providing bus passes, and rental assistance when the government rent subsidies decreased.
Rev. Jacobs says the key was each church saying ‘We can’t do this alone. I heard you’re thinking of it, can we help you?’ Church of the Foothills set aside financial support, the other churches have not been asked for financial assistance, but were asked more specifically for human energy. The realities of the human costs of time, fuel, supplies, emotional investment, skills and resources, means that the work needs to be shared - AND that everyone can participate as they are able.
This shared leadership / shared labor model also means that this collaboration is already creating the structure to help the next family, next time. “What we’ve found is that the other congregations have experience in this in ways that we do not. We tapped them for hours of volunteers, but someone had organizational ability, someone had experience in government paperwork, someone had experience in medical forms, someone had experience in finding cheaper apartments. We gained expertise as well as time investment.”
Their first hope at Church of the Foothills is to have members of the congregation realize their ‘mission capacity’, their ability to do work locally with others in ways that change people’s lives. Even more, Rev. Jacobs adds, their prayer is “that the mission energies of this collaboration will be strong enough to encourage us to do more with refugee families than just one project. We're calling this ‘New Beginnings’ because we see it as being broad enough to include non-'church people', community members, and businesses. We envision many New Beginnings born out of this for everyone involved.”
MANY GIFTS, ONE SPIRIT
There are countless ways to WELCOME. Not every church can do every part of the vast work of refugee welcome and resettlement - and not every church goes about it the same way. Here are a few glimpses of other ‘first step’ connections:
* In Oregon, Murray Hills Christian Church, Lynchwood Christian Church, and First Christian Portland connected earlier this year. While discerning and engaging in the response to welcome new neighbors they have also surfaced new community connections that have brought vibrancy and a sense of purpose to their congregations, expanding and reimagining their existing ministries.
* First Christian Church of Zanesville, Ohio had a passionate response to the invasion of Ukraine, but was too far away from a resettlement office to be a co-sponsor. Week of Compassion helped connect them with First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio, which has a history of refugee resettlement work. The relationship flourished, allowing the Zanesville church to help prepare a welcome response for refugees, while the Columbus church could provide the ongoing resettlement assistance.
* Geist Christian Church in Indianapolis had never done resettlement work before, but felt a call within the congregation’s life to explore the possibilities. When they first connected with their local agency, the Afghanistan evacuation had not yet happened; but when it did, they were ready. Now, that preparation has become a vital foundation for the ongoing care of their new neighbors.
We are eager to connect with Disciples across the diversity of our church, and the breadth of our experience - whether you have long experience in refugee response or just need help getting started. There are so many great stories to tell about this vital response to Christ’s call to welcome the stranger. We look forward to sharing yours!
For more ways you and your church can engage in refugee resettlement, contact
Rev. Alan Dicken, Associate Director for Refugee & Immigrant Response
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