When World Refugee Day arrives on June 20, we will be several years into the largest refugee crisis the world has ever seen. Extreme weather, poverty and violence are pushing our neighbors to migrate. 

In March, Cyclone Idai killed 1,000 in southeastern Africa and left 110,000 in refugee camps. In Yemen, searing conflict and extreme poverty forced 3 million people to flee their homes; 280,000 have sought asylum in other countries. Closer to home, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa in Honduras have the highest homicide rates in the world.  

These are three of many hot spots around the world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 68.5 million people are displaced—one-third are refugees and many are children. At the risk of sounding cliché, what would Jesus do? 

Our response 

The ELCA is responding to this crisis in a variety of ways. Through ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran Disaster Response, we accompany our displaced neighbors, meeting their immediate needs and providing long-term holistic support. Through ELCA AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities), we walk with Central American children and families who migrated to the U.S. and face challenges at home. And we welcome refugees to the U.S. by supporting Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). 

Eighty years ago this month—when 1 in 6 refugees was Lutheran—the ELCA’s predecessor church bodies, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and other Lutheran organizations founded LIRS. One of the oldest refugee organizations in the U.S., LIRS assists migrants and refugees with resettlement, foster care services, family reunification and other programs. Though some criticize this ministry, to ignore our refugee and migrant siblings would contradict God’s will. 

The scriptural basis for welcome 

From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai, the Bible is filled with stories of migrants and refugees. The Exodus, the central story of the Old Testament, recounts Israelite slaves fleeing Egypt, then migrating to Canaan. 

God’s word urges us to show hospitality: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). 

In the New Testament, Jesus’ family fled into Egypt during Herod’s persecution. Later, Jesus tells a story about the end of time when the Son of Man separates the nations as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The sheep inherit the kingdom: “For I was hungry and you gave me food … I was a stranger and you welcomed me … just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:35-45). 

In his teachings, Jesus calls us to radically welcome our neighbors in need.  

Called to act 

This issue is personal for me. As a high school student, I will never forget my home congregation sponsoring two teenage Vietnamese refugees. As I listened to their stories, my heart softened. Later, we became friends. I am a pastor, in part, because I saw my community of faith doing something that mattered in the world. LIRS saves lives. You are part of this work. 

Today we know the need is great, yet the U.S. administration has set the ceiling for refugee arrivals at 30,000 a year. (Canada, on the other hand, will welcome around 330,000 refugees this year.) For context, U.S. refugee admissions peaked in the 1980s, welcoming some 200,000 annually. That may seem like a lot, but in 2005, in the months following Hurricane Katrina, Houston absorbed more migrants from nearby New Orleans.  

Refugees are legal immigrants. We must not shut our doors to them because we’re afraid. 

Fear caused Levite and others to ignore the man in the ditch in the parable of the good Samaritan. However, our faith urges us to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Although we can only serve as many refugees as the government permits, there are things we can do to welcome our neighbors. Here are some ideas: 

  • Observe Refugee Sunday For worship resources, visit lirs.org/refugee-sunday.
  • Join Circle of Welcome. Your congregation can welcome refugee neighbors through this LIRS program.
  • Become an AMMPARO welcoming congregation. Learn more at elca.org/ammparo.
  • Speak up. Call your legislators and let them know you favor higher refugee admissions.  
  • Be a bridge-builder. When you meet people who aren’t from your part of the world, be kind. They may have been through challenges you can only begin to comprehend. 
Michael Rinehart
Michael Rinehart is the bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod.

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