Embracing God’s Heart for Immigrants and Refugees

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By Joseph Kidder and Boubakar Sanou

Several years ago, my [Joseph’s] brother and his family came to the United States from Iraq as refugees. I contacted the pastor of the Adventist church near where my brother and family settled. The pastor went to visit them, along with two church members. The purpose of the visit was to get to know them and offer any kind of service the family might need.

The two church members continued to see them almost every week. They helped the immigrants open a bank account, get driver’s licenses, and obtain health insurance. They showed them where different shops were in the community, took them to the doctor and dentist, and offered any other assistance they required. They also started English classes with them. By doing so, they won their confidence and started to study the Bible with them. Later on, they invited them to various church activities.

The Bible speaks about the “stranger that is within thy gates” (Exod. 20:10). It presents clear principles regarding the treatment of foreigners, the basis for practical suggestions regarding how the church or individual believers can effectively minister to immigrants and refugees.

PRAYERFUL SELF-EXAMINATION

We cannot really minister to any group of people without first freeing ourselves from stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination toward them. Because of the widespread presence of so much prejudice (preconceived opinion not based on reason or actual experience; dislike, hostility, or unjust behavior deriving from unfounded opinions), we need to pray for God to liberate us from any such prejudice toward the immigrants and refugees around us. He desires that we be open to loving and helping every such person, irrespective of religious affiliation, race, or cultural background.

Once we have sincerely prayed for God to reveal to us a ministry to immigrants and refu­gees and asked Him to search our hearts and heal us of any prejudice, we must next pray that God will put us in contact with an immigrant or a group of them.

COURAGEOUS PARTICIPATION

Since several ways exist through which one could become involved in this ministry, we need to specifically pray for God to show us how He wants to use us. Because He has a big heart for the foreigner, He will definitely reveal to us how He would like us to minister in particular contexts. As we pray for God’s revelation, we need to be prepared to obey His biddings.

We also need to pray for governments and lawmakers, that God would give them the wisdom to balance compassion with security concerns and justice with grace as they draft policies on immigration.

Lastly, the church must also pray for God to put an end to whatever has caused the worldwide refugee crisis. If Christians spent more time praying for God’s intervention in the world’s politics than they do posting on social media, they would make a far greater impact.

COMPASSIONATE EDUCATION

Before we establish any preliminary contact with immigrants, we must learn about them from reliable sources. Because so much misinformation about immigrants and refugees fills the press and social media, the church needs to intentionally educate itself on immigration facts from trustworthy experts and agencies.

Then, as God helps us establish contacts with immigrants, we must be open to learning from them, listening to their stories. In listening to their stories, we will get glimpses of God’s prevenient grace in their lives that we can then build on.

When God opens the door for us to share our faith, it is better to shift from the mindset of only talking at them to that of learning and growing with them. At times, we can be so focused on being right about our religious positions that we fail to discover how and where God is already at work in their lives. We will have greater success if we learn to team up with God in His work of redemption.

LOVING INCARNATION

According to the parable of the lost sheep, it is Christians, not the non-Christians, who are supposed to be the “seekers” (Luke 15:1–7). As such, “we are not to wait for souls to come to us; we must seek them out where they are. . . . There are multitudes who will never be reached by the gospel unless it is carried to them.”1

For that to happen, we should frequent those places that immigrants often visit, such as ethnic restaurants, shops, and other meeting places. As we mingle and interact with them, we will be able to build relationships as a springboard to sharing the love of God with them and, eventually, the gospel at an appropriate time.

SUPPORTIVE ORGANIZATIONS

Coming to live in the United States, for example, is a very stressful process for the vast majority of immigrants and refugees. Upon arrival, they most often encounter financial problems, language barriers, and cultural dislocation. To make that moment of transition less stressful, many community-based organizations have dedicated themselves to aiding immigrants. We can volunteer with such organizations and assist immigrants with such administrative procedures as going to the Social Security office, opening a bank account, finding affordable housing, enrolling children in school, and beginning a citizenship course.

Many organizations offer English as a second language (ESL) classes for immigrants. It is a practical and proven way to meet and establish friendships with them in our communities—volunteer at such organizations. If your community has no ESL program, start one at your church. Friendship is the first step in crossing the barriers separating us from people who do not look like us or do not have the same religious beliefs and cultural practices that we do. One of the great things about a church-run ESL class is that the Bible becomes a great textbook. Such classes will strengthen friendships that can eventually lead to religious conversations.

TACTFUL CONVERSATION

When immigrants show interest in our faith, study with them in a small group. Do not be in a hurry to take them to church yet. Members of some religions are shocked when they come into Seventh-day Adventist churches because it is a different way of expressing religion than they are used to.

Tactful conversation will help us to be cautious about the timing of presenting biblical truth. Ellen White warns that “while the teacher of truth should be faithful in presenting the gospel, let him never pour out a mass of matter which the people cannot comprehend because it is new to them and hard to understand.”2

More than words and arguments, our way of life is the best testimony we have to convince others that we are religious people. Our prayer life and handling of the Bible and other religions’ sacred writings show our love for God and respect for others. Furthermore, our conduct toward the opposite sex, our unselfish and unconditional care for people in need, and the inclusion of religious topics in our conversations are all part of a package that people from other religious backgrounds see as marks of being a truly religious person. Ellen G. White reminds us that “the strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian.”3

EMPOWERING CONVERSION

Immigrants and refugees encounter a great deal of loneliness since they have lost their previous support system. In their loneliness, many of them may feel that God has forgotten them.4 They also often lose hope for a brighter future. Church members can serve as social and spiritual support to them either by visiting them or inviting them to the social and spiritual activities of the church. Ellen White rightly admonishes that “a Christian reveals true humility by showing the gentleness of Christ, by being always ready to help others, by speaking kind words and performing unselfish acts, which elevate and ennoble the most sacred message that has come to our world.”5

The goal of outreach is not dependency but empowerment. Converts from immigrant communities know their own people better than we do. They are best equipped to speak to them in their heart language and culture. Many vibrant Seventh-day Adventist immigrant congregations started this way in the United States. The North American Division Adventist immigrant and refugee ministries has identified, recruited, trained, and equipped potential immigrant leaders. Such training will often result in a branch Sabbath School that eventually will grow into a church. This has been a very successful method of reaching the Karen people in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Church leadership is using the same strategy with other immigrant groups.

EQUIP MISSIONARIES

Finally, what about those who arrive from overseas with the intension of going back to their homelands, such as students and businesspersons? Ellen White connects our work among the temporary dwellers on our shores to evangelism.

“Many of these foreigners are here in the provi­dence of God, that they may have opportunity to hear the truth for this time, and receive a preparation that will fit them to return to their own lands as bearers of precious light shining direct from the throne of God. . . .

“Great benefits would come to the cause of God in the regions beyond, if faithful effort were put forth in behalf of the foreigners in the cities of our homeland. Among these men and women are some who, upon accepting the truth, could soon be fitted to labor for their own people in this country and in other countries. Many might return to the places from which they came, in the hope of winning their friends to the truth. They could search out their kinsfolk and neighbors, and communicate to them a knowledge of the third angel’s message.”6

In many countries, such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, Christians cannot freely preach the gospel. It is therefore vital that we meaningfully connect with all foreigners from such restrictive countries in the hope of making disciples who will then be able to do missionary work in their homelands when they return to places where very often no Christian missionaries are able to go.

Many immigrants come as as international students, businesspeople, or refugees. By having a loving, selfless, and intentional ministry, we will surely see how God fulfills His plan as He leads such individuals to our neighborhoods and doorsteps.

CHRIST’S HANDS

My [Joseph’s] brother repeatedly told me how much my family appreciated the care and love the Adventist church showed them. It is an example of what a church can do to alleviate the difficulties of refugees and immigrants in various contexts. According to Ephesians 2:10, Christians are “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (NIV). As followers of Christ, we pass on His love and compassion when we show concern and hospitality to others, especially to strangers and the less fortunate.

Proverbs 14:31 and 19:17 state that we honor God whenever we extend kindness to the needy. That may be one of the reasons why Jesus said that when we give a banquet, we should focus on those who cannot repay us (Luke 14:13). Let us never forget the following biblical teaching in our dealing with strangers: first and foremost, we need to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39), and our “neighbor” is any human being in need of a helping hand no matter what that person’s citizenship, race, or gender (Luke 10:25–37).

This is the heart of our judgment-hour message. Ellen White states, “When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering.”7 The essence of Christian hospitality is to be Christ’s hands wherever and whenever we encounter people.

S. Joseph Kidder, DMin, is a professor of Christian Ministry, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Boubakar Sanou, PhD, DMin, is an assistant professor of World Mission and Leadership at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

  1. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 229. ^
  2. Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 202. ^
  3. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 470. ^
  4. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 232, 233. ^
  5. Ellen G. White, Christian Experience and Teaching (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1922), 74. ^
  6. Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1925), 200. ^
  7. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 637. ^

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Ministry,® International Journal for Pastors, www.MinistryMagazine.org. Used by permission.

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