On Sunday, June 22, the ELCA will celebrate a rich, long history of Lutherans helping immigrants and refugees settle and become self-sufficient here in the United States.

Refugee Sunday was designated by the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly to recognize the heritage of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and its 75 years of service to refugees and immigrants.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service came into being in 1939 to help refugees after World War II, many of whom were Lutherans living as displaced persons in refugee camps. Today, the Baltimore-based pan-Lutheran agency resettles approximately 10,000 refugees a year, most recently from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq and Somalia. Together with its sponsoring congregations and Lutheran social ministry organization partners, the service provides housing, food, clothing, job assistance, mentoring, language assistance and more.

This isn’t just the anniversary of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, according to Tara Mulder, director for marketing and communications, but the legacy of all Lutherans. “Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has taken the lead in service and advocacy to refugees, but it’s really our celebration as Lutherans in caring for uprooted people.”

All Saints Lutheran Church in Phoenix is one of the congregations that will celebrate Refugee Sunday in a big way, along with Living Water Lutheran Church in Scottsdale, Ariz. Working through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, these two ELCA Grand Canyon Synod congregations are just two examples of the ongoing work being done to sponsor and support families resettling in their area.

Lutherans care

Joseph Dillon, pastor of All Saints, agrees with Tara. “The church has been in the resettlement business for a very long time,” he says of All Saints’ 12 years of participation, averaging work with four to eight families a year. “This project keeps us rooted in what we’re about as Lutherans — caring for those in need, not just the homeless under the bridge three blocks away, but for refugees, too.”

“Being an upper-middle-class congregation, it has kept us in touch with the rest of the world and serves as a reminder of several things: There are a lot of people who don’t have the opportunities and living conditions that we take for granted, and there are a significant number of people who still want to come to this country.”

The work of All Saints is possible thanks to congregation members like Barbara Rockow, Tim Gaffney and others on their Social Ministry Committee. For the past few years, Tim, social outreach chairman, has collected and transported furniture and furnishings all year long for refugee families locating in Phoenix.

In his spare time, when he’s not working a busy night shift, he picks up donations of furniture and household items, like dishes and bedding, that can be used to furnish a refugee family’s apartment.

“I’ll get a call one day that someone has a kitchen table and chairs to donate, and a couch the next. These are the kinds of things that would usually go to Goodwill, but they’ll give it to us for refugee resettlement,” Tim says.

The items are held in a storage unit until All Saints gets a call that Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest has a family resettling in Phoenix. Then the church committee gets to work furnishing and setting up an apartment. Volunteers stock the fridge, provide toys and orient the family to the apartment.

Sometimes refugees may need to learn to use a stove, or be shown how to work a dishwasher or a vacuum, said Barbara, since many have been living in ill-equipped refugee camps in their home countries, where they often met their spouse and had their children.

Small gestures stir joy and hope

Ken and Joyce Best of the Care/Share Committee at Living Water in Scottsdale do similar work with Lutheran Social Services. They recall their joy at being able to give a key to a refugee to open the door to his new home, only to have it handed back because he had never used a lock and key before.

“We can’t begin to understand the feelings of these people,” adds Joyce, who often greets refugees at the airport at all hours of the night.

“They arrive at a foreign airport, wearing a nametag and carrying their worldly goods in a bag. They’re exhausted, no smile, no one looks like they do, no one speaks their language; they come off that jetway ramp and look so tired.”

But congregations like All Saints and Living Water, and many others around the country, welcome refugee families, children and individuals with open arms and caring smiles — carrying balloons, a stuffed animal, a cool drink — small yet hope-giving gestures that reflect our own experience of Jesus’ love and acceptance.

Each personal welcome and every caring action is a reminder that no one need be alone in their search for hope, healing, a new life and self-sufficiency.

Activities and resources for celebrating Refugee Sunday, including bulletin inserts, prayers, adult forums and youth activities, are available on the website of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Brewster, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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