I Was a Stranger

Matthew 25:31-35
March 19, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

The following is the spoken portion of a powerpoint presentation on refugee needs which I did as the sermon time. The slides and audio can be seen on the Union University Church Facebook page.

[Slide — intro]

These days, our nation is so polarized that it is hard to find anything we all agree on.  We are divided across political and religious lines over issues of race, gender, sexuality, gay marriage, women’s rights, and abortion.  It is heartening to discover, then, that there is still one truly ecumenical concern that is shared by people of faith across all denominations and traditions, and that is a concern for refugees.

[Slide — interfaith symbols]

When the Trump administration issued a travel ban preventing people from entering the US from initially seven and now six Muslim countries, churches and faith groups around the nation almost universally condemned the travel ban, concerned that intentional or not, the ban promoted religious division and implied that strangers are dangerous to our nation.  Above all, religious groups worried about the welfare of the many refugees that are seeking asylum from political persecution, war, and ethnic suppression.  The Catholic Church’s Relief Services wrote, “We believe in assisting all those who are vulnerable and fleeing persecution, regardless of their religion. This includes Christians, as well as Yazidis [in northern Iraq] and Shia Muslims from Syria, Rohingyas from Burma, and other religious minorities…. We need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims, who have lost family, home, and country. They are children of God and are entitled to be treated with human dignity. We believe that by helping to resettle the most vulnerable, we are living out our Christian faith as Jesus has challenged us to do.”

Evangelical Christians weighed in as well.  The Southern Baptist Churches issued a resolution saying,  “We affirm that refugees are people loved by God, made in His image, and that Christian love should be extended to them as special objects of God’s mercy in a world that has displaced them from their homelands.”

The Lutherans (ECLA) noted their own history as refugees, and the Episcopal church likewise noted that we are a nation of immigrants, and ….statistics show that immigrants support a growing economy and that the crime rate among immigrants is lower than the general population…” Summarizing the conviction of Christian groups of all traditions, the Episcopalians added, “But data is secondary to our unshakable biblical conviction that every person reflects the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity.  In Jesus Christ, there is no “they;” there is only “we.””

[Slide — Moses in the wilderness]

Christian concern for the refugee is not simply a humanitarian impulse but is fundamental to the character of who we are as a people of faith.  From the first call God made to Abraham and Sarah to leave their homes and settle in a new land, to the persecution of the young Christian church at the hands of the Roman government, our Judeo-Christian story has been a story of being strangers in a strange land.  As a Jew, Jesus knew that his people had once been forced by famine to seek refuge in Egypt, had wandered in the wilderness as people without a nation, had been displaced by war and conflict, had been carried off to exile in Babylon, and now lived uneasily under the thumb of Rome.  Jesus expressed his kinship with the refugee when he described himself saying, “The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” and he made our call to care for refugees explicit when he said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

As one pastor put it, the issue of refugees is not an issue of the elephant or the donkey; it is an issue of the lamb.  We as Christians are called to defend and help the stranger.

[Slide — refugee definition]

U.S. immigration law defines refugees as those people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.  In 2015, there were approximately 65 million refugees in the world, most of whom were what are called internally displaced people — people who have had to flee their homes or villages but still live within the borders of their home country.  About 20 million refugees, however, have left their native land and are homeless in the world.

[Slide — Kenyan camp]

Although the entry of refugees into our country has become a huge political topic these past few months, in fact, the US is responsible for only a small portion of refugee resettlement.  Bordering nations often see the greatest influx of refugees.  This picture shows a refugee camp in Kenya for Somalians fleeing a decades-long civil war between rival war lords.  Likewise, Syrian and Afghan refugees have flooded Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Jordan.

[Slide — process chart]

In contrast, last year the US allowed entry to only 70,000 refugees all of which had undergone a rigorous screening process.   This graphic shows the 11 steps that occur before a refugee is allowed into our country, a process that may take several years to accomplish.  Some of the refugees that I’ll be talking about later lived in refugee camps for five, ten, even 15 years before coming here.  This means that not only have they endured often deplorable and unsanitary living conditions for years but they have also lost educational opportunities for their children and job experience for their young adults.

In order to receive asylum, a refugee applies to the UN and the UN is responsible for determining who will receive asylum and where they will be sent.  Families don’t know what country they will be assigned, nor where in the country they will be sent after acceptance.  If they are assigned to the US, they must undergo numerous interviews, medical exams, background checks and cultural orientations before they are finally deemed ready to travel to the U.S.

[Slide — India]

In 2016, the UN assigned nearly 1,200 people to asylum in Rochester.  This was a 56% increase over 2015.   Although Syrian refugees have been most prominent in the news, only 80 Syrians were assigned to Rochester last year.  Most of the refugees coming into western NY over the past decade are the victims of ethnic cleansing or civil war going on in these countries:

– Myanmar (Burma) (blue) ethnic cleansing

– Bhutan (green)  ethnic cleansing

– Nepal (red)  tibet political refugees

[Slide – Africa]

more recently

– Somalia (red)  civil war

– Sudan (blue)  civil war, desertification

– Democratic Republic of Congo (green)

[4 slides of refugees]   As I said, these refugees are mostly the victims of ethnic cleansing, and civil war, in some places like the Sudan, conflicts being exacerbated by desertification and the loss of fertile land.  In the Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual violence, used as a weapon of war, is so common that human rights groups have called the area “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”

[Slide — family arriving at airport]

Once a person or family has been through the screening process for the US, they are assigned to a government sponsored refugee resettlement agency.  The State Department works with nine different resettlement organizations, six of which are religiously affiliated.  Refugees coming into Rochester, NY go through Catholic Family Services.  Catholic Family Services books their flight, picks them up from the airport, sets up required doctor’s appointments, helps them with all of their processing paperwork, and finds them housing.

Catholic Family Services, however, only has the federal funding to be with a refugee family for the first 90 days.  Imagine the kinds of changes these people are facing.  They have experienced years of war, oppression, and life in a refugee camp.  They may have come from a rural village and are now living in the middle of Rochester.  One Somalian refugee who came to Rochester many years ago as a 16 year old said that she was petrified of riding the bus.  She didn’t have buses where she came from and was afraid that if she got on the bus, she wouldn’t know how or where to get off and might end up far away from her new home unable to get back so she bought a bike and used it exclusively to go to school and work.  She is now grown with three children and said, “I’m so happy for them that they can take a bus without even thinking about it!”

[Slide — nepalese alphabet]

The biggest challenge is, of course, language.  Most of the refugees don’t speak English, let alone write it.  They may not have been literate in their own countries or if they were, their language may have used an entirely different alphabet.

This is the alphabet of Nepal.  Imagine that the situation was reversed and you were a refugee sent to Nepal and you were given 90 days to learn how to speak, write, and read Nepalese.  Would you be able to do that?

[Slide — Mary’s Place]

This is where organizations like Mary’s Place step in.  Most of the refugees that come to the US are eager to learn English, get jobs, and enroll their children in school.  The asylum process is long and rigorous and so many of the people who manage to get to our shores are the cream of the crop — they are persistent and motivated people who want to continue to learn after the government assistance stops.  The Elders designated refugee assistance as our March Mission of the Month, and after quite a bit of research, we have chosen Mary’s Place in northeast Rochester as the recipient of our benevolence offering.  Mary’s Place picks up where Catholic Family Services stops, and on Friday I visited the center and talked with the director Charlsey Bickett about their programming, and came away very excited and encouraged about their work.

Mary’s Place was started in 2009 by an outreach committee of a local Rochester Catholic group.  Their website says, “When [we] saw refugees walking around [our] neighborhoods with flip-flops on and no coats in the winter, [we] decided to start a simple coat distributor.”  That coat distribution center quickly grew as the needs for additional services became obvious and in 2014, they moved into a decommissioned Catholic church which they rent from the diocese.

Mary’s Place is supported completely by donations and by a few small grants that they are able to obtain each year.  They have one full time staff member — Charlsey Bickett, their director — and two part time staff members who are both former Somali refugees.  They lived in refugee camps for ten years before coming here so they are able to empathize with the experiences the new refugees bring with them.  Mary’s Place also depends on numerous volunteers who come in to help with all of their programs.  The center serves hundreds of people each day, both newly placed refugees and people who have been here for many years but are still hoping to improve their skills or continue to need assistance.

[Slide — Green card]

Mary’s Place has one long-time volunteer who works as a case manager, helping people navigate social services, housing issues, or filling out forms.  Sometimes people may come in for something as simple as having their mail read to them.  They may get letters from the school saying that their kids will have a day off for superintendent’s day, or a notice that they need to renew their food stamps, but all they can tell is that the letter looks important.  The case manager also helps the people fill out forms for their green cards, a lengthy process because each member of the family needs to apply for a separate green card and some of the families may be very large.

One of the effects of the Trump administration’s travel ban has been an upsurge in the number of refugees applying for green cards.  A person has to have been in the country for one year and one day before they can apply and many people just hadn’t gotten around to starting the process.  Suddenly concerned for their families, they have been coming to Mary’s Place for help filling out the forms and the case manager has had to bring in some extra volunteers to manage the increased work load.

[Slide  — Teaching English]

Mary’s Place offers three English classes per day.  A beginner class meets from noon to two o’clock every day and is taught by all volunteers.  The volunteers may be retired teachers, college students, or just random people who want to teach.   People in the class may come from many different countries representing as many as ten different native languages but the classes are total immersion classes and only English is allowed.  One teacher is fluent in Arabic but refuses to speak it in class insisting on English only.

The state says that classes can be no larger than 25 people.  Never wanting to turn people away, they have volunteers who come in and while the teacher is teaching the main class, the volunteers can be working on English skills with the overflow group.

[Slide — teaching English]

The other two classes are taught by ESL teachers from Rochester City School districts.  They used to have a program for preschoolers but the Rochester school district now has a city wide PreK program so during the school year, even the youngest refugee children attend the city schools.  The director, Charlsey said that this has been very helpful for families because children learn English so quickly.  One Somalian family has only been here for a few months and the 4 year old is already out-speaking the mother.

[Slide — summer program]

The center does offer classes and programs for kids during the summer months while there parents are at work or attending the English classes at the center.  They have a partnership with Nazareth College which provides summer interns to run the programs, and in the last two weeks of August when the college students go back to school, they try to organize church youth groups to come in and run programs for the kids, something we can certainly be thinking about.

[Slide —  citizenship]

One focus of some of the more advanced English classes is citizenship preparation.  In order to become a citizen, a person has to have lived here for five years and take a test on knowledge about the US and our government, and they also have to show that they can speak, write, and read in English.  Volunteers work with the refugees preparing for the test and the Center has several computers which include citizenship preparation software, as well as English language learning software.

[Slide — clothes]

As I mentioned, Mary’s Place began as a coat distribution center and it maintains its relief programs as well as its educational programs.  Every Tuesday, Food Link brings food for distribution and they give out about 150-200 bags of food a week.  Food Link doesn’t often provide a lot of protein rich food so sometimes the center will obtain grants to buy extra food that is more protein heavy.  They also have a clothes distribution loft stocked from donations from churches and the community.

They run this clothes loft as a simulated store.  They provide fake currency to the refugee families and set pretend prices to help people get used to handling American money and understanding shopping.  They also have found that many people came from refugee camps where there was a pack mentality toward donated goods as people scrambled to get the best things so by running the clothes loft as a simulated store, this restores people’s dignity and reduces the trauma associated with pawing through bins.  Charlsey told me about a young woman whose family came from the Democratic Republic of Congo who is now a senior at a High School in Rochester.  She has recently been accepted by six colleges for pre-med, but she says with fondness, “My mother learned to shop at Mary’s Place!”

They also provide hygiene products, soups, deodorants, and house ware items.  I asked what kinds of items they needed most and Charlsey said, “Blankets, sheets, towels, and surprisingly, garbage bags.”  They pack everything into garbage bags for people when they “shop” and she said sometimes she feels like half of her budget goes to buying garbage bags.

[Slide — painting]

Finally, I asked Charlsey how the administration’s proposed travel ban is affecting their work and she said that even though the travel ban is tied up in court, the UN has ceased all intakes of refugees until July at the earliest while they wait to see what will happen.  Because places like Catholic Family Services are funded by the government and are paid per refugee settled, they are having to lay off staff so the people that would have been going to them are now coming to Mary’s Place.  She also said that they have had an increase in clients coming to their center seeking advice, nervous about the future. They’ve had to say to people, “Even if your mother is dying in Somalia, don’t go to see her because right now, we can’t guarantee that you can get back in.”  This is particularly hard on families that were split up by the UN, with only some of the family granted asylum while others still wait in refugee camps.

One of the families I saw at the Center were almost the victims of this ban. The grandmother and her two adult children and their families had been relocated in Rochester about a year ago.  The woman’s third daughter was a widow, her husband having died in the war, and she has three children, an 8 year old daughter and two boys 4 and 6, but they were still in a Kenyan refugee camp.  They were working their way through the process to be brought here but just before they were to come, the first ban went into place.  The grandmother was devastated and afraid she might never be reunited with the rest of her family, but then the ban was lifted and Catholic Family Services went into high gear.  Carlsey got a call from the CFC saying, “We’ve gotten the family a flight and they will be here on Valentine’s Day at 11 pm but our Somali interpreter is sick.”  Both part time staff at Mary’s Place are Somalis so Charsley and her staff came to the airport and brought coats and toys for the kids.  The grandmother, other daughters, and all of their children were a few minutes behind them but hadn’t gotten to the airport yet when the plane arrived.  The family had been on planes for 40 hours and when they came through the gate, the mother was exhausted and the three children were terrified.  Charlsey and her staff greeted them as best they could and they headed down to the baggage claim area, and she said, “As we went down the escalator, the grandmother and rest of the family walk in, and it was like a slow motion scene from a movie where everyone run toward each other and starts hugging and crying.  The little boys started playing soccer with their cousins right there in the baggage claim area and when security came over to intervene, they realized what was happening and said, “Do whatever you want.  We won’t interrupt.”

I met the eight year old girl and the two little boys when their mother came by for an English class while I was there and beamed at Charlsey and waved.  She said, “I don’t think they still really know who I am but they associate me with that wonderful moment in the airport and break into smiles whenever they see me.  If they hadn’t been able to come during that small window of time, they’d still be in that refugee camp in Kenya because by the end of February the UN stopped all new intakes.”

[Slides — five more]  Here are a few more pictures of people at Mary’s Place.

[Slide — quote]

We are called as Christians to welcome the stranger.  The founder of World Vision, a Christian organization which among other things, helps refugees around the world, said, “Our prayer should be this one.  Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.”  Certainly the plight of these men, women, and children displaced by war, ethnic cleansing, famine, and violence break the heart of God and should move our hearts as well.

The Elders encourage you to reach out to refugees in Rochester by supporting Mary’s Place this month.  Mary’s Place would like to start a sewing program for the many women who have sewing skills and are looking for used sewing machines, so if you have one sitting around that you are not using, bring it to the Church Center and we will make sure they get it.

As I said, they are also in need of garbage bags so let’s designate next Sunday as Garbage Bag Sunday.  Everyone that can bring in a box of garbage bags and we will bring them up to them.

And mostly, what you can do is give generously.  Mary’s Place depends entirely on donations to pay staff salaries, rent for their facility, and program cost.  We are called to welcome the stranger and hold them in our hearts.  Let’s show them just how seriously we take that call by giving generously to the work of Mary’s Place this month.