As Christians celebrated Christ the King on Nov. 22, 500 people gathered in Allentown, Pa., to stand in solidarity against the face of fear and hatred at an interfaith event to welcome refugees from Syria. Those in attendance included young and old, the mayor of Allentown, clergy from the community, and people of many faiths and from various parts of the world. The divisions of this world, sinful and broken, were healed, if only for a moment, in what I’m sure was a glimpse of the new creation of God.
The event began with a moment of silence for 37 nations victimized by terrorism in 2015, and then we sang the national anthem. Together, we said, “We reach out to our Syrian brothers and sisters to welcome them; we also come to witness against intolerance and xenophobia in our land. We stand together in our commitment against terrorism. We commit to doing something to build our community – to make it stronger for all of our neighbors and ourselves.” With voices accented by many languages, we sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Imagine.”
It had been a long week and a difficult time to work in a social ministry organization that resettles refugees, particularly Syrian refugees. Allentown has one of the oldest and largest Syrian communities in the United States. Lutheran Children and Family Service, working out of the Lutheran Congregational Services office, has already resettled about 50 people from Syria this year – Muslim families who had spent the last few years in Jordan. After the terrorist attacks around the world a couple weeks ago, the community’s fear centered on our small office and our modest work of welcome.
The fear became tangible a month ago when we hosted a public meeting to share ways community groups, faith communities and individuals could assist Syrians arriving in Allentown. We were blessed to have 70 supporters but were challenged by the 20 who showed up in vociferous protest. It was at this meeting that the leadership of the Lehigh Conference of Churches decided to host a welcome celebration for the community.
Shy from the previous meeting’s vitriol, many of us urged postponing the welcoming event until things calmed down. The Syrian refugees who were graciously invited to the celebration were afraid to come out to the event because of the community climate centered on hate and fear. Case managers did not want to be publicly seen for fear of jeopardizing their daily work with the refugee families. The city police reached out to us before the event; they wanted to be prepared. Friends and colleagues were praying for the event to be peaceful. I must admit, I was anxious in anticipation.
When I arrived at the event, the donation room was already half full of household items. I found myself constantly in the way of people with arms full of pillows, blankets, cleaning buckets and sets of dishes. More than $6,000 was donated before the event and more than $3,000 was collected during the offering. Afterward a meal was shared, which was donated by restaurants owned by people in the Syrian Christian community.
Earlier in the day, I had preached (to myself!) that we have nothing to fear as we live in the reign of Christ. At this event, I heard, saw and tasted that proclamation embodied by the gathering of the community for the sake of welcome, kindness and peace. I can honestly say that this was the clearest vision of the new creation of Christ’s promise that I have ever experienced. For that, I am deeply grateful. My fear is overcome with hope.