Loving Our Refugee Neighbors
by Rev. Christopher Cashen, Evangelist called by Redeemer OPC, Atlanta, GA, to serve in Clarkson, GA
From the May 2018 issue of New Horizons
Do you remember the question asked in Luke 10 by the lawyer in an attempt to test our Lord Jesus Christ? In the end, it was not the Lord who was tested, but the lawyer himself. He asked, “Who is my neighbor?” but he was not really searching for his neighbor’s identity. The parable Jesus told in response—the parable of the Good Samaritan—uncovered the fact that the lawyer was having a problem discerning the depth and the breadth and the width of the comprehensive love of the living God for his people.
In July 2017, the congregation of Redeemer OPC in Atlanta, Georgia, began a ministry that caused them to probe the depth and breadth and width of God’s love as they endeavored to shine forth Christ to their new neighbors from all nations called refugees.
Many things may come to mind when you hear the wordrefugee: you may think of places of turmoil around the world, the work of terrorists, or the politics of responding to such issues. But what does the word actually mean? There is certainly a legal dfinition when the title is used in the context of immigration. But more broadly, refugee simply refers to men, women, and children who are seeking refuge.
The reason why they must seek refuge varies from family to family. They each have their own story. Many are fleeing war. Some are fleeing persecution. According to the 1951 UN Convention, a refugee is one who is seeking refuge “outside the country of his nationality” due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Importantly, a refugee is also one who is “unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Redeemer OPC’s pastor, Zecharias Weldeyesus, is himself—along with his wife and five children—a political asylee from the Horn of Africa. Under his leadership, Redeemer began reaching out to its new neighbors in Clarkston, Georgia, last summer, including calling me to serve as an evangelist there.
Clarkston is a small city about seven miles from Redeemer, on the edge of the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta. It has been referred to as the “Ellis Island of the South” because of the significant concentration of resettled people from all nations. When you walk through the farmer’s market or on the grounds of the many apartment complexes, you see people dressed in clothing from all over the world, speaking languages that are foreign to our American ears. The Atlanta Magazine described downtown Clarkston as extending “a total of just three city blocks, give or take. And yet there may be no place in the country as kaleidoscopically, vibrantly, viscerally diverse” (“Ellis Island South,” January 2017).
Where do you start when reaching out to a city like that? Redeemer began by seeking to gather information about the field: who was already working in Clarkston, what their beliefs were, and how our vision would fit in with these existing ministries. We attended orientation classes for volunteers with resettlement agencies and parachurch groups and began to help the local PCA mission work. In September, we joined an English as a Second Language (ESL) program held in an Atlanta PCA church. Through these contacts, we have begun to meet and minister to several families from Syria and Afghanistan.
The language barrier has proved challenging but has also opened doors for ministry. One widespread difficulty for parents who do not speak English is helping their children with school work. We were given the opportunity to begin an after-school program two days each week for elementary school students at one of the many apartment complexes. The children receive help with homework, practice writing, sing songs, are taught Scripture, create crafts, and play games. On Monday evenings, we also hold an ESL class at the same apartment complex. Throughout the week, we are beginning to schedule in-home visits with our ESL students to teach and establish more personal relationships.
All of this is intended to show forth the love of Christ, to establish sincere and lasting relationships with individuals and families, and to enable the sharing of the gospel. We are praying that the Lord would be pleased to plant an OPC church in the heart of Clarkston in the near future.
Why would the church choose to begin this kind of ministry? Simply put, the Word of God is clear concerning the duty of God’s people toward aliens, strangers, and thus, toward refugees within our land. Moses, as he was moved by the Spirit, wrote that:
“you shall treat the stranger who sojourners with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34).
And as the fifth and last book of the Pentateuch was recorded, the Israelites were informed in no uncertain terms that God:
“loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18–19).
Refugees are certainly our neighbors before whom we, as the church, need to shine as the light of Christ. Their presence in our country gives the church a unique opportunity to meet the physical needs of our friends while we share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ with them.
Webster’s Dictionary (1828) defines “refuge” as that “which shelters or protects from danger, distress or calamity; a strong hold which protects by its strength, or a sanctuary which secures safety by its sacredness; any place inaccessible to an enemy.” Redeemer OPC began this ministry because the church knows that true refuge can only be found in the One who said to his disciples:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” ( John 16:33).
With all the press on the topic of immigration and with the acts of terrorism being committed throughout the world, questions about safety abound. Is it “safe” to serve, to minister, to those from Islamic and other countries? The short answer is that even though our experience in this ministry is quite short, we have been sincerely welcomed into several refugee homes and never felt anything but genuine hospitality. Is it safe? The broader answer is that as Christ called his disciples to make disciples, he also promised to be with them. He is with us each time we go out.
Diaconal and gospel ministry to refugees is certainly not limited to Clarkston, Georgia. Our new neighbors are being resettled across the United States. Resettlement agencies are always looking for help. Volunteering is an excellent way to be introduced to refugees and to begin to love your new neighbors.
If you would like more information about starting a refugee ministry in your area, or would like to receive a periodic update regarding the Clarkston ministry, please contact Chris Cashen at [email protected].