My Congregation Tried to Help a Syrian Family Settle in the US

Editor’s note: The author has asked to publish this piece pseudonymously to spare his congregation controversy.

When Aylan Kurdi’s short, unfortunate life ended in the waters off Turkey this summer, I did what many pastors did: I talked about him in the sermon. The gospel lesson that Sunday all but begged us to touch on the subject, after all. It was the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose plea to heal her daughter he initially brushes off with the curt message, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Her response about the dogs maybe licking up a few crumbs under the table unlocks something in him, and he grants her prayer. It doesn’t take much imagination to adapt a story like that to the plight of Aylan’s family and the thousands of other Syrian refugees streaming into Europe. So, like everybody else, I teed the message up and sent it for a ride.

But I had something that most of those other preachers didn’t: a way to help in the here and now. As it happened, we had been asked by the local office of a refugee resettlement agency to help with a Syrian family due to arrive in our community: a father, a mother, and a teenage daughter.

We are a small, mostly elderly congregation. Realistically, our ability to help is limited. But the church mice took the cause up with a fire. Within the space of two weeks, we had collected an astonishing amount of supplies for the family: aspirin, personal care products, two toilet plungers (no idea how that happened), pots, pans, plates, silverware, pillows, sheets, blankets, furniture, gift cards and on and on. Friends of the congregation and their relatives wanted to help. A bag of donations showed up on the doorstep unsolicited. We had so many offers to help that I had to graciously turn people down.

Collections are relatively easy ministries for a congregation. You go to the store, you fork out some cash, you drop it off at church. Boom. So it was all the more impressive to hear that the members were willing to consider getting involved face-to-face with our Syrian family. (I have been careful to use their name, rather than refer to them as “the refugees,” so the people have some kind of human face to associate them with.)

They had some trepidations, to be sure. They are older, they have trouble getting themselves around, much less anybody else. Nobody, not even me, really wanted to take on the daunting task of learning Arabic. And yet, they were willing to consider it, with reassurance that the job would be spread out among many, and that I’d be around to guide them. They were looking forward to putting on a dinner to welcome the family to town, wondering if they could invite them to church without being rude. We were the envy of the ministry-minded in our area. More than one colleague called or wrote to ask how we had gotten connected with this family.

All that came despite the agency’s warning that resettling Syrians was likely to be controversial. The agency had already taken some heat for working with a single man from Syria and another family from Iraq. A local church from one of the more conservative denominations hosted some traveling “missionaries” who spoke on the dangers of Islam and its hostility to Christian values. That led to some ugliness.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been limited to this isolated incident. In the wake of last week’s attacks in Paris, one politician has leapfrogged another in getting out in front of the ugly nativism. Donald Trump thinks marking refugees’ religion on their ID cards makes sense, and that we might want to look at closing down mosques. Others have suggested that refugees be placed in camps, or rounded up by state detachments of the National Guard. All in all, it has been a sad and cowardly few days for America.

For me, the worst was hearing the governor smugly (and with dubious legal justification) proclaim that our state would not accept new Syrian refugees. Oh, really? I wanted to respond. Says who?

I cannot for the life of me understand why a man who makes so much of his faith would suddenly be so willing to throw mine away.

By now, there have been plenty of arguments made for the Christian nature of welcoming refugees. My favorite is simply to point to Jesus’ statement that “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…as you did it for one of the least of these, so you did it for me.” But even though they live at the quick of the faith, justifications are less interesting than simple facts on the ground.

We had a community ready to welcome strangers in need with open arms, which is what everyone says Christians should do. But now comes the governor and a wave of his colleagues to tell us that we should count the costs of the gospel; that we should parcel out our love in teaspoons because of some remote possibility that there might a terrorist hidden in the families making their way out of hellholes in Turkey and Jordan; that we should shrink back and protect ourselves rather than help, as if Jesus did any such thing.

As it turns out, it’s a moot point. Someone in our Syrian family has had health problems and is unable to fly. They have been delayed indefinitely, and it’s time for us to start thinking about who we might help in their place. I have longed to greet and welcome them to the United States because that’s what my faith tells me to do, and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we will have the chance to do that.

It does make me wonder, though, what would happen if this family got their flight waivers tomorrow and showed up next week. Would they be redirected to Connecticut like the family turned away from Indiana this week? Would they face open hostility, suspicion, even violence, as Muslims in many states have? Would my parishioners still want to befriend them, or would they be cowed or converted by the mean-spirited rhetoric that has been flying loose recently?

It’s that last question that has me thinking that my faith doesn’t need protection, thank you very much. Something has shaken loose in the American psyche this week, a vein of paranoid xenophobia that for a long while has been inflated with poison by people eager to take advantage of the cultural and economic anxieties of the nation. The rottenness has finally burst for everyone to see and those responsible for pumping it up are scrambling to take advantage. All I want to do is be free to live my faith as best I can.

Last year about this time, at an otherwise dreadful interfaith worship service, I was blessed to see a trio of Pakistani girls chant a surah. Two of them stood facing one another. They concentrated intently and produced a sweet, heartfelt harmony. The third looked off into space in a different direction and barely mouthed the words. I loved them all immediately. It was one of the few times that night that I could honestly say I felt the presence of the sacred among us.

That’s not despite our religious differences, but because of them. The God I know and worship takes chances to reach across divides and welcome strangers into the divine heart. I’d like the freedom to follow that God by doing the same, and to teach my children and parishioners to do likewise. We might not get that chance. The way things look these days, we must all be “secure,” no matter how minuscule the risk, and freedom—even the freedom to follow our own conscience—be damned.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have the chance to meet our Syrian family now, but if we do I hope I will be able to offer the formal greeting one might expect of a man of God: Assalamu Alaikom warahmatu Allahi wa barakatuhu, “Peace be with you, and God’s mercy and blessings,” without having to add under my breath, “despite what our government says.” I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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