Tomorrow, June 20, is world refugee day. Currently, there are more refugees in the world than there have been since World War II. Some are economic refugees, some are climate refugees, some are political refugees, some are religious refugees. And while there are root causes that need to be addressed to change the situation, there are real people struggling to survive.
A number of agencies work with refugee resettlement, some faith-based, some secular. One of the oldest and most respected is Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Founded in 1939, LIRS began its work resettling refugees (mostly Lutheran) displaced by World War II. Some 57,000 displaced persons, primarily Latvian and Estonian, were relocated to the United States by LIRS. In the Montana Synod and beyond, we have the Kogudus ministry, because Olaf Magis, an Estonian, resettled in the United States.
There is a world refugee crisis. We read of overcrowded refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East, and of migrants crowding onto small boats in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe. Closer to home, Central American migrants, fleeing from intolerable conditions at home, risk the dangerous journey into the United States in order to provide a better life for their children.
And while policy makers grapple with solutions, children and families are in dire need. And the Lutherans are there, on the border, and in the places where asylum seekers end up. Bishop Mike Rinehart, Chair of the LIRS Board, writes: “Last month, DHS released 100,000 asylum-seekers onto the streets. LFS, LIRS and others have been scrambling to meet the humanitarian need. Many don’t speak English. Some speak indigenous dialects and barely speak Spanish. Many are wearing ankle bracelets. Many have endured suffering and abuse along the way, and while in ICE detention.”
He goes on: “LFS RM welcomes them, gives them clothing, feeds them, helps them get oriented to the situations, facilitates their travel to whoever they are going to. A local church has opened its doors and hearts to them every week. Another church is providing volunteers.”
A month ago it was reported that Malmstrom Air Force Base was being considered as a backup location for unaccompanied minors, should there we a hurricane where they are now located. The mayor of Great Falls is on alert, should that happen.
Montana is not unaware of refugees. The mayor of Helena, Wilmot Collins, who did a workshop at our Synod Assembly, is a refugee from Liberia. Missoula, in particular has a “Soft Landing” program that resettles refugees. A generation ago Lutheran Social Services resettled refugees from Southeast Asia all over the country—aftermath of the Vietnam War—including Montana.
Lutherans have been generous with refugees and immigrants over the years through ministries like LIRS. Some like to say it is because we are a nation of immigrants. That is true—partly. We are a nation of immigrants from Europe and Africa and Asia and Latin America. But we are also a nation of indigenous people who have been on this continent for millennia before the Europeans arrived.
I like to think that Lutherans are generous with refugees and immigrants because the Bible is full of admonitions not to oppress the stranger, nor the sojourner in our midst. Besides, some of our greatest heroes in faith were refugees—Abram and Sarai, Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
Bishop Rinehart continues: “So far this year, you have, through LIRS, assisted 10,000 people seeking to reunite with unaccompanied children. You have helped 250 unaccompanied children find caring foster homes. You have welcomed 1500 refugees an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) holders. You have provided immediate care to thousands of migrants released by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection.)”
He concludes: “We visited with refugees and asylees from Guatemala, Burundi, Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan and other places. I heard several say, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without the Lutherans.’”
For resources to use in your congregation to highlight our church’s compassionate ministry with refugees, go to the LIRS website, www.lirs.org, and go to resources. Here is a prayer for Sunday, June 23:
“For all children of God, that we may no longer be defined by our labels—Jew and Greek, male and female, refugee, stranger, immigrant, alien. That God’s power would heal us and help us to grow in unity in Christ Jesus, let us pray.”
May it be so.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA