Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Ark., was helping resettle its first five refugee families from Iraq, the Congo and El Salvador when the White House executive order banning refugees hit the news earlier this year.
Clint Schnekloth, pastor of Good Shepherd, is a founder and board chair of Canopy Northwest Arkansas, a new interfaith nonprofit in Fayetteville that works to resettle refugees. While the ban complicated Canopy’s work, he said it didn’t hamper it. The organization used the opportunity to stay true to its mission, raising awareness for the plight of refugees.
“When the executive order happened, every news outlet everywhere wanted to hear from Canopy,” Schnekloth said. “We held a town hall-style meeting [Feb. 2] at a local church and 400 people from the community turned out.”
In operation for less than a year, Canopy has already made its mark on the interfaith community in northwest Arkansas. “We didn’t anticipate that level of response,” Schnekloth said. “We’ve already made so many friends through Canopy. A young Syrian woman who is a lawyer spoke about coming to the United States as a Muslim woman, another lawyer from the community gave a breakdown of how to understand the impact of the executive order, and I gave people ideas on how they could help.”
Several days later, when a court upheld the stay on the executive order, Canopy returned to its resettlement work.
Canopy was started in conjunction with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and the local Catholic Charities office last summer. Schnekloth and members of Good Shepherd, a co-sponsoring congregation, did a lot of the groundwork with LIRS. The first four families and one individual arrived in the fall.
Schnekloth doesn’t like to take the credit for founding Canopy, which he said is led by and open to all faiths. “There’s a strong imprint with Lutheranism because it’s affiliated with LIRS, but it truly is a community organization,” he said.
Canopy got off the ground quickly with funding from LIRS, individual donations and grants. Schnekloth also credits the speedy hand of God. “In less than a year, we went from an idea to a staff of four and a budget of one-third of a million dollars. It’s just crazy. It’s been a Holy Spirit thing,” he said. “There is such immense support for this organization that we have more people who want to volunteer than we have opportunities.”
Emily Crane Linn is the executive director of Canopy. The daughter of missionaries from the Free Evangelical Church, she lived abroad and saw firsthand the plight of refugees, who often wait in camps for an average of 17 years before getting clearance to come to the United States.
Linn is quick to distinguish between a refugee and an immigrant. A refugee, she said, is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion or national origin.
Canopy, she added, partners with LIRS and has a contract with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. The contract, Linn said, requires Canopy to provide the following services: airport pickup; escort to their furnished apartment; a welcoming meal; grocery shopping; visiting them the next day and checking on them periodically; starting the intake process; enrolling them in English as a Second Language and job classes; helping get children enrolled in school; and assisting in applying for Social Security cards, applications for public assistance and medical screening within the first month.
After these initial services, the organization oversees their ongoing cultural orientation and provides job-search assistance.
“What we’re able to do, which goes above and beyond, we do with our co-sponsors,” Linn said. Most co-sponsors are community churches.
Alexa Marley is on Good Shepherd’s 12-person co-sponsor team. She helped furnish an apartment for one family by getting a furniture store to donate mattresses and collecting household items, clothes and toys from church members and friends.
“It’s been a really nice experience,” Marley said. “It’s very fulfilling for me to do this work with them. It gives us something tangible to do—to build relationships with people who are different from us.”
Marley also accompanied the family to a mosque and attended services.
“The other part of what we do is to be their friend,” she said. “We call each other. We also took them to a hockey game and have invited each other for dinner.
“They’re charming people. If people had a chance to meet refugees, some of the fear would be taken out of it. They want a life and a safe place just like us.”