Church's Countercultural Witness through Resettlement of Syrian Refugees


From left, Raveen, Moumen and Mohammad, a Syrian refugee family being helped by College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo: Mark File)

Opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees was vigorous before President Trump's executive order banning them from entering the country.

A majority of Americans - 54 percent - expressed opposition in November 2015 to the United States accepting Syrian refugees, according to a Washington Post and ABC News poll, reported Time magazine.

About the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 289-137 to suspend the program that allowed Syrians into the country.

With 47 Democrats and 242 Republicans, the vote was strong enough to override President Obama's threatened veto. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said he would attempt to block the bill.

Other efforts also sought to prohibit the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Indiana governor, and now vice president, Mike Pence tried. A federal appeals court rejected Pence's case.

That court decision forced the Texas attorney general to back away from his anti-resettlement efforts.

A long-time opponent to refugee resettlement, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal issued in November 2015 an executive order halting state agencies from being involved with Syrian refugee resettlement.

Now, almost two years later, we have the most visible move to keep out Syrian refugees.

President Trump has issued an executive order barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States. "I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the USRAP (U.S. Refugee Admissions Program) to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest."

Anti-Trump Americans were given another reason to protest.

Pew Research said that of the 12,485 admitted Syrian refugees in 2016, "Nearly all of them (99 percent) were Muslim and less than 1 percent were Christian."

Underscore Muslim and Syrian. Add the public and political opposition to refugees. Toss in the fear of terrorism.

Given these powerful forces, a remarkably surprising counter-witness has emerged.

Churches have quietly pursued an alternative moral vision with feet. Churches have refused to follow the lead of politicians and public opinion. They see the issue as one of biblical faithfulness, not politics. Churches have been at the forefront of resettling Syrian refugees.

According to World Relief, a resettlement organization, 1,000 churches are involved with resettling Syrian refugees. Many are no doubt Baptists.

Brent McDougal, pastor of Dallas' Cliff Temple Baptist Church, wrote in September 2015 about his church's partnership with Gateway of Grace to resettle five Syrian families.

Bryant Wright, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Atlanta, said in December 2015 that his church was seeking to help a Muslim Syrian refugee family.

A year later, Johnson Ferry was helping seven Syrian families.

The congregation's pastor for global ministries, Bryan Hanson, said, "a lot of people want to make this (the Syrian refugee crisis) a political issue; for us, it's a biblical issue."

Another Georgia Baptist church also stepped into the breach. First Baptist Church of Gainesville adopted a Muslim Syrian family a year ago, providing them with housing and groceries.

College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, began helping earlier this year a newly arrived Muslim Syrian family with five young boys.

Pastor Michael Usey said helping a refugee family was a positive thing to do "in this dark time in America." He said practicing hospitality to foreigners was "deeply in our Jewish and Christian DNA."

College Park's refugee resettlement efforts go back more than 23 years when the church resettled a South Vietnamese general's family.

Another North Carolina church, Knollwood Baptist in Winston-Salem, welcomed its first Syrian Muslim family of seven in May 2016. Knollwood and Temple Emanuel collaborated to resettle another Syrian Muslim family of four in September.

Knollwood's pastor, Bob Setzer, said the congregation's "hearts were moved... by the plight of refugees from Syria (and elsewhere) who are desperate to find sanctuary from wholesale war and unspeakable atrocities." He added, "we just thought it was the 'Jesus thing' to do."

Another Winston-Salem congregation, Ardmore Baptist Church, is also engaged in helping a Syrian refugee family.

Unfortunately, we don't have a registry of Baptist churches engaged in resettling Syrian refugees. We need one for the sake of collaboration and education.

Church resettlement of Syrian refugees and those from seven other "countries of concern" offers a countercultural witness to the dominant culture.

The church's moral responsibilities differ from the state's national security interests, showing courage in the face of fear.

Perhaps what is taking place almost beneath the radar may be a good sign of a nonpartisan yet resistant church to secular politics.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook. Order his new book, "The Disturbances." It is available as either a paperback or an e-book.

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Tags: Baptists, Immigration, Refugees, Robert Parham, Syria


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