[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
While refugee resettlement in the United States has enjoyed longstanding support from lawmakers and communities, 2017 has seen the creation of policies aimed at limiting and decreasing arrivals. Resettlement efforts in the U.S. involve collaborations among governmental agencies, non-profit organizations known as Voluntary Agency (or Volags) and communities. Congregations and faith partners have played an important role since formal refugee resettlement efforts began in 1975. Now, even as refugee resettlement has become a political hot topic, churches continue to carry out a significant role in providing welcome, especially in terms of building lasting relationships and serving as community guides to newcomers from around the world.
From its inception, the U.S. refugee program intended for the public and private sectors to partner in the welcome and integration of refugees. The Refugee Act of 1980 formalized these partnership efforts at refugee resettlement, creating the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. At present, nine Volags hold contracts with the federal government to welcome and assist refugees in their initial transitions to communities around the country. Each agency manages its local offices across the U.S., while each office interacts closely with the surrounding community. When congregations like Conestoga Mennonite Church in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, welcome refugees, they form partnerships with a Volag responsible for resettling families in their area. For Conestoga, the partnering Volag was my employer, Church World Service (CWS) of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
On a sunny afternoon in May 2017, a home in New Holland, Pennsylvania, underwent a special transformation. The brick house, down the street from a tractor supply store, was outfitted to become the new home for a Congolese family. While the Conestoga Mennonite Church Welcome Team was hard at work cleaning and organizing in preparation for their arrival, the Congolese family (a mother, father and their four children), were still waiting for their flight from Tanzania to New York.
It had been decades since congregants of Conestoga Mennonite had sponsored refugees. In early 2016, the congregation began conversations about welcoming another family to eastern Lancaster County. Pastor Bob Petersheim notes that “Conestoga has a long history of mission support local and global. . . . [We] have deep in our congregational DNA the Matthew 25 words of Jesus that state, ‘if done to the least of these, it has been done to me.’’’
Conestoga formed a committee, received a refresher on system changes since they had last sponsored and began the work to prepare for a family. The Welcome Team involvement has added additional support to the family’s resettlement journey, providing further assistance to integration efforts. CWS case manager, Alyssa Anderson, notes that “the stability and support the Conestoga Mennonite Team provides to the family is so crucial. The family knows that they have a community that not only welcomes then, but loves them, and that makes such a difference.”
Some churches want to help with refugee resettlement, but do not live within the permitted resettlement range of a registered Volag to be involved. Without a way to privately sponsor a family, these communities are limited in their ability to extend welcome. One such community currently navigating this situation is Gainesville, Florida. Richard and Eve MacMaster, members of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, began organizing interfaith and community efforts with the expectation that welcoming refugees to Gainesville would be the bulk of their work. They soon realized that their church is 75 miles from the closest resettlement agency. The congregation’s efforts have now shifted towards organizing volunteers and donations to be sent to newcomers in the closest resettlement town. If given the opportunity to either welcome a resettlement agency to Gainesville or privately sponsor a family, the MacMasters say they would “very definitely” jump on board.
An additional challenge for the U.S. refugee resettlement program is that the work of resettlement agencies is tied to the political will of the nation. The media coverage of the Syrian crisis has seen an increase in community interest to volunteer with refugees, but a decrease in the political will to fund the program and allow families to arrive. Regardless of community support and money raised, agencies are now faced with being unable to perform the vital work to which they have been called.
Community and faith partner support is invaluable to the work of resettlement agencies in the U.S. Many times, the relationships established within the first months of transition last a lifetime. Although this has been a turbulent year for refugee resettlement in the U.S., congregations like Conestoga Mennonite and communities like Gainesville are stepping up to show that there is space for refugees and immigrants in our communities as our neighbors.
Christine Baer is congregational resource developer for Church World Service’s Lancaster, Pennsylvania, office.
United States State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration: https://www.state.gov/j/prm/about/index.htm.
United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr.