I traveled to the Toronto area earlier this year to write about two Canadian churches that partnered to adopt a family of Syrian refugees:
BEAMSVILLE, Ontario — As war ravaged their homeland, a Syrian family of eight fled for their lives.
The Muslim father, mother and six children — among 4 million Syrians who have escaped to neighboring countries — ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
There, they lived in a barn for four years.
Conditions became so dire that the family — including a daughter with cerebral palsy — contemplated returning home, despite the 5-year-old civil war that has claimed an estimated 470,000 lives.
“Inhumane” is the single word that an Arabic interpreter used to translate the Syrians’ lengthy description of the camp.
Enter two Churches of Christ south of Toronto — their hearts touched by the plight of strangers abroad and resolved to show the love of Jesus to a suffering family.
In reporting that story for The Christian Chronicle, I was interested in the "delicate balance between serving and evangelizing," as national reporter Adelle Banks characterizes the dichotomy in a new feature for Religion News Service (more on her excellent piece in just a moment).
My story quoted church member Marcia Cramp and Noel Walker on that topic:
The church members hope to introduce the family to the Gospel of Jesus.
For now, they’re content to build the relationship slowly and learn more about the Syrians’ own faith.
“It’s been a really interesting journey,” Cramp said. “If I was really open and honest … I was probably quite racist and biased against Muslim people. They would not have been people (to whom) I would have gravitated to seek out a relationship.
“And it’s just been such an eye-opener for me to engage with a family that is loving and humorous and caring and empathetic in the same way that all of us are,” she added.
Walker, the minister, expressed similar sentiments.
“My eyes have been totally changed toward the Muslim community,” he said. “They were caricatures of human beings before.”
While my piece touched on the compassion vs. conversion issue, Banks — a longtime Godbeat favorite of your friendly GetReligionistas — dives deep into the subject in what RNS describes as "the first of a three-part series that looks at evangelical Christians' complex views of the global migrant crisis as well as how refugees are reacting to evangelical outreach."
(RNS) Ask Wah Nay Htoo how an evangelical church helped her refugee family after they arrived in Colorado and her list is long.
“Oh my goodness, Cornerstone helped our family a lot — everything,” said Htoo, 38, a Burmese woman who lived most of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the Denver suburb of Lafayette in 2008.
The church helped her kids enroll in school and do their homework. A member of the church with a landscaping business hired her husband. “And for me, Cornerstone helped me to find teachers to teach me English,” she said.
Although evangelism is the lifeblood of evangelical Christians, some say service is too, and though both may drive their efforts as they reach refugees, care comes before — and, sometimes, without conversion.
“When I serve in a local elementary school or when I serve people like refugees,” said Andy McCullough, a pastor of Cornerstone Church in Boulder, “we feel like as a church our first step is to serve, and to do that not so that they’ll become Christians, but because we are Christians.”
Htoo, who was a Christian before she came to the U.S., said her husband, a former Buddhist, became a Christian convert at Cornerstone about a year after their arrival.
A little deeper in the story, Banks offers this meaty context:
Evangelical humanitarian groups that focus on refugees and receive government funding, such as World Vision, have policies that forbid proselytizing. But leaders say opportunities certainly arise where staffers and volunteers can discuss what they believe.
“The government grants don’t prevent us from talking about our faith,” said Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., who said such funds can’t be used to build churches or distribute Christian literature.
“If a person says, ‘Why are you here and care?’ our staff can say, ‘We’re here because we are Christians. This is what we believe. We’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves.’ We can do that.”
Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, the humanitarian organization of the National Association of Evangelicals, said proselytizing is not their policy and conversion is not the focus when they partner with churches in their work with refugees.
“It’s just the fact of loving them and welcoming them that speaks for itself,” she said. “Now, in the process of us building that relationship, do we share about what motivates us and our own faith? Yes, there’s opportunity but a lot of times we just welcome them and that in and of itself is something that we feel like we’re called to do.”
Government funding of faith-based relief organizations is, of course, a longstanding point of debate. Way back in 2003, this was the headline on a national story I wrote for The Associated Press:
Christian groups eager to help in Iraq, but critics wary their aim is conversion
Just because a subject has been around for a while, though, doesn't mean that readers — who occasionally sleep and forget a news story they read years ago — don't need to be reminded. Banks and RNS do an excellent job of encapsulating the issues and questions related to evangelicals and refugees.
The story provides a nice mix of voices: refugees, Christian volunteers and religious experts.