I was in Kenya in the autumn of 2014. I stayed in the home of a saint of a woman named Goma. Grandmotherly, gentle, joyful, she sang songs of praise while cooking breakfasts of eggs and sweet potatoes. She was forever lifting prayers to the Lion of Judah. She’d volunteered to host me and two other Americans at her home for the duration of our stay, and despite being frail and getting on in years, she bounced at the opportunity just to sit and talk with us.
Goma was naturally hospitable. I daresay she would have hosted a whole continent of guests if the opportunity arose.
It wasn’t until we’d been living with her for several days that I came to find out Goma was, in fact, already hosting other guests. In the adjoined unit of her home, she’d been housing a family of refugees from South Sudan—a young mother and her three children.
The children were tiny and weak. One of them, a young boy, showed me the black spiderweb of skin where a bullet had pierced his calf. They were war refugees. Goma, herself feeble and defenseless, offered them a refuge.
Goma did not make a show of her compassion. She didn’t boast in her hospitality, but only in the God who was hospitable to her. What is more, Goma went beyond boasting in Christ, and became Christ to the stranger in her midst. Her action was not out of pure duty or pure pity; it was genuine care. She wanted refugees and, out of her want, she made a home for them.
The Western Church can impersonate Christ the way Goma did.
We have spoken already in this book about why the Church must mourn with refugees and why it must care for them. We must also want them.
The Church must want the dispossessed not only in a sentimental way, not only in feelings, but also in action. That means intentionality. It means being proactive. It means seeking refugees out, not just waiting for them to come to us.
Now, even if we know the Church has good reasons to care about uprooted people, why might we want them so sincerely as to actually bring them into our communities?
I offer three reasons:
Rescue. The Church can desire the stranger because we should be spiritually, emotionally, and physically distraught about the suffering that is facing so many migrants around the world. We want to protect the human dignity inherent in every person. For many refugees, the best way to safeguard their dignity is by welcoming them to our shores.
At bottom, we want refugees because we don’t want them to suffer.
Witness. Christians can want refugees because in that desire is a deeper desire to be the light of Christ. I don’t mean we should desire refugees in order to evangelize them into church on Sunday morning, but because the best way to love a person like Jesus is to literally be with them.
Humanitarian aid is of course an excellent means of bearing witness to the gospel in our generosity, but how much greater is that witness when it happens face-to-face, when we take the initiative to open our borders, homes, offices, restaurants, schools, and churches to the foreigner! Short of going to live in refugee camps and warzones ourselves, bringing refugees into our communities, accompanying them in their distress and through their transition, and generally doing life with them are among the best means of practicing Christlike togetherness with the lost and the hurting.
Love of Neighbors. The Church can want refugees for the same reason we want our current neighbors and friends. Refugees are people with so much to offer and to be offered.
Christ tells us repeatedly to care for our neighbors. If they are not already, we must begin to see refugees as our neighbors—and make that literally, practically true by helping them move.
Just as the Lord wanted us even when we were unwantable, what a testimony it is when we receive the Spirit’s promptings and power to want the alien. The Church, both in the West and the East, has a long history of taking in the foreigner. Let us overcome the present fear, distrust, selfishness, and love of comfort to continue the tradition of wanting the stranger.
If it is heartfelt, our wanting refugees will lead to welcoming refugees.
What does welcome look like in the process of resettlement?
There is a longstanding discussion among scholars and across society about the best means of welcoming sojourners into a new community. Some like “assimilation”, while others prefer “integration”. Some talk about “acculturation” and others talk about “accommodation”. The terms themselves give rise to questions. Do aliens need to abandon their culture when entering a new one? How do we respect the introduction of foreign cultures into our own? Where can we compromise and where do we need to take a stand? What is our identity?
Ultimately, the descriptors that spawn such debates are largely irrelevant. Certainly we should care about competing values and identity, but the Church is not called to get bogged down in the whims of culture, for culture itself is a complicated, ambiguous, distracting thing.
In an earthly sense, each of the things that might define a culture—communal history, common values, shared beliefs and customs, ethnic or religious ties, language, etc.—are important. But for the Christian, culture is considerably different.
Our culture is the Kingdom. It is not ultimately tied to lands or constitutions, but to the Word and life of Christ.
The Church has a culture of welcome, service, love. It is meant to befriend the dispossessed on a personal level. Whatever we want to call the movement of refugees into our communities—assimilation, integration, acculturation, or something else—the Church is ultimately about welcoming them into its place of residence, into a Kingdom culture, and into the lives of Christians.
Making a Home for Refugees
Because earthly, temporal cultures are neither the first nor final word for the Church, we can have grace for a wide range of cultural identities. We can be open to altering our place-based cultures to serve the needy, even changing some of our traditions, norms, and non-gospel principles. Such a welcome must also participate in cutting out barriers between locals and newcomers—including political, caste, and economic barriers.
We must make a home, not merely a guesthouse.
Making a home for refugees means tearing down walls and building up relationships. It means creating opportunities and empowering migrants to participate and succeed in the life of the community they’ve entered, even if that requires that we natives sacrifice some of our own comfort and opportunity.
Welcoming refugees is hard work. I discovered while working in refugee resettlement in Chicago that the challenge is far less about divvying up resources and far more about problem-solving to meet a million different needs—including plenty of needs you’ve never encountered before.
Welcoming refugees means helping people find foods they are familiar with—usually all-natural and non-packaged. It means reading their mail when they don’t understand it. It means being patient as they learn English and try to figure out transportation. It means helping them find a place to live, enroll in schools, acquire bus cards, interview for jobs, and manage time and money.
On one occasion, a few refugees from the Middle East came to me, their eyes huge with concern. They asked me to protect them from government spies.
“What?” I said, surprised. “What spies?”
“They called last night and the night before that,” one of the refugees said.
It turned out they’d been receiving calls from telephone and TV companies. Because the numbers were not identified in their contacts and because they couldn’t understand what was being said, they believed such anonymous calls were from people trying to harm them. That’s what anonymous phone calls meant where they came from, they said.
Here, all it took was a friendly American to let them know they didn’t need to be afraid—AT&T was just trying to give them a deal.
Another time, I visited a family of Ronhingyan refugees in their low-end apartment on the northside of the city. I asked if they had any questions or concerns and, in broken English, they asked me to get rid of the beds we’d provided.
“Why? Is there something wrong with them?” I asked.
“We don’t sleep on beds,” the father told me. “We want a rug to sleep on the floor.”
Such situations are common in resettlement. A collision of cultures, differences between expectations and what can be provided, a collage of norms and values. Sometimes they are frustrating. They are always enlightening.
The Church is the best responder to such challenges because it is not bound to socially-determined cultural mores, because it can meet even the highest expectations, and because we can deal gracefully and compassionately with differing customs and values.
The Church can make a home because it is multiethnic, multicultural, and above nations. And refugees—various, beautiful, valuable all—are not mere visitors; they are newcomers here for the long haul. If they want to return to their homeland, we should encourage that and offer assistance, but if not, we should relieve them of their yoke and welcome them into the neighborhood.
Radical Christian welcome means radical Christian inclusivity. The Church should be surpassingly and markedly inclusive. Far more inclusive than ethnically- or culturally-defined states. We must welcome refugees, the stranger, the orphan and widow, the prisoner, the sick, and the separate. Welcome them not only in our land, but also in our sorrows and our celebrations (Deut. 26:11). Take refugees to the grocery store and the subway. Make them tea and allow them to make you tea. Go to a show, go to park, go to a place of worship that is not your own. Include everyone in the feasts (Deut. 16:9-12). Invite refugees to your Thanksgiving meal, and then again for any regular Thursday dinner—and ask them to bring a dish from their home country if they can afford it.
The Church’s welcome is lived out in an exorbitant openhandedness and an unashamed openheartedness. It is more than doing things together; it is doing life together. It means loving enemies, which makes enemies into neighbors, then friends, then family. After all, part of making a home is being a neighbor.
As Christians, not only were we bought back by Jesus, we were brought back by him, too. He did a far greater work than just paying our ransom, just footing the bill. What he did was call us home, welcoming us into the family of God. Let it be like that for us. Let’s not just pay away the problems of refugees—because, as good as that effort is, ultimately it doesn’t solve the problem—let’s also call them our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors.
Such love, demonstrated by the Father, commanded by the Son, energized by the Spirit, is the essence of our faith. His Beatitude Archbishop Makarios said in his address to the joint convention of the World Council of Churches in 1969 in Cyprus words that resonate to welcomers today.
The problem of refugees is not only of concern to the governments of the countries in which it exists. It is a matter of moral obligation for every government, organization or even individuals. For the Christian Church it is a matter of particular significance because it falls within the first and greatest Christian commandment: the commandment of love. And love is the whole substance of the Christian religion. Where there is human need and suffering, Christianity comes to its own. God has identified Himself with those who are suffering.
In that divine identification, God does not just take people in or even let people in. Instead, he wants them, welcomes them, and makes a home for them. Let his Church do likewise.
 This idea is drawn from Darrell Jackson and Alessia Passarelli. Mapping Migration: Mapping Churches’ Responses: European Study. World Council of Churches, Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe. 2008. p. 12.
 “The Report of the Consultation on the Palestinian Refugee Problem” World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1970. p. 20.