By Gayla Congdon
My first experience with refugees was in the early 1980s while working at First Christian Church in San Francisco. The community the church served had an influx of about 200 families seeking asylum in the United States. These families had fled El Salvador due to a bloody civil war taking place there.
FCC pastor Bill Miles called me to ask for my help with a little translation problem the church was having. He said about 50 kids from El Salvador showed up for FCC’s “Summer Fun in the Son” program. A 10-year-old was the only one in the group who could speak English, and he was acting as their translator. Program leaders didn’t trust that he was translating correctly for the rest of the kids! They were justified in their concerns. The boy was misconstruing some messages to his advantage!
It was a tough summer, as the new kids gradually assimilated into the neighborhood. The language barrier was difficult, but the biggest challenge we faced was emotional assurance—assuring all the kids there would be plenty of resources for everyone, especially love.
The summer started with the kids going at each other, fighting and saying ugly words in both languages. There was an overall tone of resentment from both sides. But the summer ended with hugs, tears, and a better understanding of the stranger in our midst.
Isn’t our fear of immigrants and refugees the same as what these kids were experiencing? Aren’t we afraid there aren’t enough resources to meet the pressing needs of the community?
When our family moved to City Heights in 1989 to help lead a church plant, we quickly became aware of the race issues taking place in the East San Diego community. Our local high school was having race riots between the existing, diverse student body and the immigrant students pouring into our community from Southeast Asia.
Our first year was an eye-opener. We had come to reach this diverse community, yet that wouldn’t be as easy as we thought. Our hope was to create a multiethnic church that reflected the community. In order to succeed, we needed to deal with the fears people had that the strangers in our midst would take from them the few resources that were available.
Nathan Moore, senior pastor of Fairmount Community Church in San Diego, says the concerns we faced in 1989 still exist today. It’s hard to get people from different cultures, languages, and religious backgrounds to accept and trust one another according to Moore, especially when they seem to be in competition for jobs, social service resources, and housing.
He’s frustrated. It seems that when refugees need to be resettled, they are placed in communities like City Heights that are already overextended. This community has the highest population of immigrants and is the most racially diverse in San Diego. Since the 1990s our area has seen more than 15,000 Somali refugees move into the area; our community has the second highest population of Somalis in the United States. Government officials have told me that refugees from particular countries are typically directed to communities where their fellow countrymen are already established so they can be assimilated.
People who came to my community as refugees many years ago have told me that, early on, it was difficult to assimilate. They felt resentment from the established community. Over time, however, walls started to come down. Healthy relationships began to develop as they went to school and played sports with each other. Real friendships developed, and people began dating outside their own cultures.
My Vietnamese neighbors told me they didn’t like it when the Somalis were settling in City Heights. Then, as the Vietnamese remembered what it was like when they arrived, their attitudes changed. It wasn’t easy to reach out to the new arrivals, and yet the effort they made had a significant impact on the rest of their Vietnamese community.
Jon Luna, a first-generation Filipino-American raised in City Heights writes the following about the Somali refugees in City Heights Life:
Let us be mindful that when we see others who are different—those who look different physically, who believe in a different religion or speak a different language—we should not see each other for our differences, but for our shared struggles.
Scarcity of resources seems to be the biggest fear whenever we discuss the issues of immigrants and refugees. If we believe God created the world with an abundance of resources, where does this fear come from?
Refugees from war-torn areas like Central America have been migrating north during the 40 years I have served in Baja California, Mexico. These folks travel in the hope of crossing into the United States through Tijuana, which has acted as a gateway for many. Tijuana over the years has become home to many migrants who never make it across.
According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, many Haitians left their homes for Brazil after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Finding no work, the Haitian refugees started making their way to the United States via Mexico. It is believed Tijuana’s population has swollen by many thousands of Haitians who are hoping to enter the United States.
Amor Ministries’ workers in Tijuana have been welcoming these strangers in their midst; they are sharing with them without fear of not having enough themselves.
Why does it seem like those with few resources seem to trust God more than those with an abundance of resources?
Ed Stetzer has a theory. In a recent blog post at Christianity Today he wrote:
In this country fear has become a defining narrative, even among Evangelicals. It comes in many forms: fear of unemployment, fear of the unknown, fear of the infringement of rights—all concerning. But one in particular—fear of terrorism—has caused a unique problem when it comes to community and love of neighbor.
Stetzer encourages Christians to stand in solidarity with refugees. Please read the post in its entirety (see link at the end of this article). I believe our Christian witness will never be greater than how we welcome the stranger in our midst.
These are challenging times. As I write this, aid organizations have renewed desperate pleas to reinstate a cease-fire to evacuate an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians from the city of Aleppo in Syria. Where will they go? Who will welcome the stranger in our midst?
Boldness is required. Yes, it comes with great risks. Perhaps the greatest risk is the one to our hearts.
Shortly after “Summer Fun in the Son” ended, we were informed the families were being deported back to war-torn El Salvador. Asylum had been denied. Our hearts were broken. These new friends not only had to leave, they had to return to an unknown future.
We were never able to contact any of those families after they left us. To this day we have no idea what happened to them. What I can say is that for one summer, First Christian Church in San Francisco “welcomed the stranger in our midst.”
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33, 34).
Here is a link to Ed Stetzer’s blog post, “The Narrative of Fear Surrounding Refugees: Preparing Ourselves for the Conversation,” Christianity Today, December 7, 2016: http://bit.ly/2gkvJNC.
Gayla Congdon is founder and chief spiritual officer for Amor Ministries, based in San Diego, California.