What We Believe
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Welcoming Refugees in the Name of Christ

Judith M. Dinsmore

Last December, a twenty-seven-year-old shared his testimony during the Sunday school hour at Redeemer OPC in Atlanta, Georgia. He spoke in Tigrinya, the language of his native Eritrea, and a church member translated. “This morning, I’m here before you to tell you the story, not just about me, but about the work God has done in my life,” Amanuel quietly began.

A Refugee’s Inexpressible Joy

Amanuel (not his real name) grew up in the capital of Eritrea. His dad, a Christian, led the family in worship every evening. When Amanuel was in high school, his dad was imprisoned and detained for several years for his faith. During the imprisonment, Amanuel’s father became paralyzed from rough treatment.

Amanuel knew, as all young people in Eritrea know, that the government had a shoot-to-kill policy for anyone caught crossing the border into Ethiopia, at that time its enemy, and severely punished anyone caught crossing into Sudan. “But at the end of the day,” Amanuel said to New Horizons through a translator, “it is a decision of faith. If I was going to leave Eritrea and come to a place where I can enjoy religious freedom, where I can work and support my family, then I would have to take risks.” So he fled.

In December 2018, he came to the port of entry at the US-Mexico border and sought asylum in the United States, which historically has provided refuge to many afraid for their lives. Amanuel was sent to a detention center, first in South Carolina and then in Georgia. His time in detention was extended, time and again, for reasons he didn’t fully understand. His plea for asylum was denied, so he appealed. His appeal was then denied. Deportation became a constant possibility, and, because his asylum paperwork recorded that he was a Christian, a return to Eritrea meant death or imprisonment. “I started feeling like God did not care about me. I felt very, very isolated,” he said.

Every day, he woke up early to read a chapter of Scripture and pray. From nine to three he worked in the kitchen for four dollars an hour.  Then he rested until dinner. After dinner, although he could interact with other inmates, he usually didn’t. “Most of them were unbelievers, and sometimes they became very angry with our situation and with people,” he said. So, typically, he’d return to his room and continue reading.

After a year and a half in detention, the Lord brought help to Amanuel through a remarkable chain of contacts that led to Yonas Isaac, a fellow Eritrean and worshiper at Redeemer OPC. In April 2020, Yonas and a friend drove south to the detention center to meet Amanuel.

“To this very day, the joy that I felt from that morning has only grown bigger,” Amanuel said. “When these men came to visit me, not only being Eritreans but also believers, it was a powerful reminder that God actually cares for me. That was the reason for my inexpressible joy.”

When Amanuel was released from his two-year detention in November 2020, with Redeemer as his sponsor, he wept. The detention officer asked him why he was crying. “I told him, I am not crying, I am rejoicing,” he remembered. “I told him, I am going to be released, but not only that, . . . I am
going to go to a church where I can worship, where I can fellowship with other Christians. So the Lord has fulfilled his promise to me.”

Currently, he lives in a ministry apartment rented through the church. His case is still pending, and his future uncertain. He may yet be deported. But for now, Redeemer has provided both a physical and spiritual resting place—a source of “great encouragement and spiritual growth,” he said.

Ministry to Refugees

The pastor of Redeemer OPC is himself an asylee from Eritrea and as such is eager to welcome the stranger (Matt. 25:35). Four years ago, Redeemer decided to begin a ministry to refugees and immigrants “down the street” in Clarkston. They called Chris Cashen as their first evangelist. The ministry was jointly funded by the presbytery’s home missions committee, the OPC’s home missions committee, and the OPC’s Committee on Diaconal Ministries.

While the refugee ministry has offered Bible studies, English classes, and an after-school program, perhaps its most lasting impact to date has been with a couple who, like Amanuel, have not been granted asylum status—yet. Gabriel and Marie (not their real names) and their two young daughters came to the States from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Two and a half years ago, like many other Congolese, Gabriel and Marie found themselves on the wrong side of the country’s leading political party and its president. (In 2019, 43 percent of all refugees admitted to the United States were from the Congo.) Both had friends and family who had been physically harmed by the police. Gabriel and Marie were protesting the leadership at a university in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, when Gabriel joined a group of protesters peacefully burning the party’s flags. Both he and Marie, who had been supporting him, were visible at the protests, and, a few days later, the police found their apartment. The police beat Marie, who was home alone with their three-year-old and infant, and destroyed some of the family’s belongings. After that, Gabriel said, “we had to find a way to flee.”

After a harrowing journey, they, too, came up to the port of entry at the US-Mexico border. Gabriel and Marie were immediately separated and placed in detention—he with the baby, she with the toddler.

Around the same time, the refugee ministry in Clarkston had decided to make themselves available to help a temporary shelter for asylum-seekers in Austin, Texas, that was full to capacity. When Gabriel and Marie were released from detention into this temporary shelter, the shelter worker pulled up contact information for Chris Cashen.

“I was really surprised to hear about Atlanta,” Gabriel said. “I asked the worker, what is this place? Will we like it? And the worker said, the man is a pastor, you are going to be taken care of.” So, on November 23, 2019, Gabriel and Marie got on a bus and settled in for the ride to Georgia.

“When we arrived in Atlanta, it was very noisy and extremely cold—we had never experienced this kind of cold,” Gabriel said. Chris Cashen arrived in the rain to pick them up, and they were so amazed at his care, they said, that they had an “instant affection” for him. Cashen’s wife had supper ready and beds made. Gabriel and Marie lived with the Cashens for the next year.

“They showed us so much love, and we had the feeling that they were considering us to be their own children,” Gabriel said. “They helped us in all our difficult moments.”

A Local Church’s Work to Welcome

And there were many difficult moments.

Those with refugee status work with a resettlement agency to receive what they need—Social Security numbers, permission to work and attend school, and ESL classes. But as asylum applicants, Gabriel, Marie, and Amanuel have none of those resources. First steps include applying for permission to work and enrolling independently in English classes.

“Ministry to those seeking asylum is a step up from refugee ministry,” Chris Cashen explained. A licensed attorney, he was able to offer some legal help. Gabriel started working last May and has been supporting the family since last July. When they moved into their own apartment, they needed furniture and household supplies. Gabriel needed a driver’s permit and training in how to navigate Atlanta’s traffic. And even at church, they faced the language barrier.

“The way I communicate with Gabriel is with Google translate,” Doug Furce, a member at Redeemer, explained. “He speaks into his phone in French, and the phone translates to English, and then I do the opposite.”

Debora Furce, also a member of Redeemer, has worked with the refugee community in Atlanta, primarily women and children, throughout her career. To serve refugees, she explained, you have to be interested enough to really learn about them, so that you can discover what they need. Talking to a bilingual person from the refugee’s culture can be very helpful. “Learning about these very different people that you would never have met otherwise is a blessing because God’s Word comes alive right in front of you, that the kingdom is for every nation!”

At first, Doug didn’t see it that way. He wasn’t excited about helping a family who had not taken a more traditional path to immigration. “It took me awhile to get over that,” he said. “When I got to know Gabriel a little more, and built a relationship with him a little more, … I just really wanted to help in any way I could.” And so he does. Working with Gabriel and his family, Doug explained, has been an answer to his prayer to be a servant of God. Doug lately spent a few weeks working on the family’s donated van so that it would pass Georgia’s vehicle emissions test.

Progress is slow. COVID-19 has impeded both church fellowship and the asylum application process.

But every Sunday morning, Gabriel and Marie are at church with their two daughters. Amanuel is there, too, sitting next to Yonas, who translates the sermon. “It’s not important how many we reach as much as it is that whoever we reach, we embrace them and welcome them,” Debora said. Doug is looking into headphone devices with multiple channels for transmitting the service in multiple languages in real time.

Despite the challenges of welcoming the stranger, Debora said, God is at work. “You come to our little, itty-bitty church, and you see people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Asia—you see Hispanics and Congolese. God’s doing something, and that in itself is the blessing,” she said.

Showing, and Being Shown, Christ

The Committee on Diaconal Ministries, along with others in the denomination, first considered refugee ministry during the historic migrant crisis in 2015. The OPC, however, has a long history of welcoming refugees. In the 1980s, OP churches welcomed families from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Lately, refugees are most likely to be from Congo, Burma, Ukraine, Eritrea, or Afghanistan.

The CDM would like to see more OP churches engaged in refugee ministry and, last November, created a subcommittee toward that end. It will soon be sending out an information-gathering survey to all OP churches with experience in such ministry. (The survey can also be found at opccdm.org/ministries/refugee-ministry.) For those OP churches interested in ministry to refugees or asylum-seekers, contacting local resettlement agencies is a great place to start. These agencies are usually looking for, and ready to train, new volunteers. Some, like World Relief, partner with churches specifically as part of their mission.

Refugee ministry, the CDM believes, is a way to obey the Lord’s special command to welcome the stranger. Through the ministry of the Cashens and love from the church, Gabriel and Marie have been shown Christ.

“We see the hand of God and his protection through this whole thing. We have buried brothers and sisters. We have seen people drown. We ourselves have come to Atlanta and have been welcomed, and we can look to the Lord and say, thank you,” Gabriel said. “We know the presence of God is at Redeemer, because we have seen this love for the neighbor that Jesus talks about and calls for.  To this day, the people in the church welcome us, and we feel like we are in Africa, with our family, at home.”

And through the perseverance of refugee believers, home-grown church members can also be shown Christ.

When he was in detention, Amanuel studied the book of Exodus with Chris over the phone. “I learned that the way to joy in the Christian life under any circumstances is to submit to the will of God,” Amanuel said. That calling is the same for Christians in any situation. “Whether we are refugees or people who were born and raised in America with many, many privileges, we are here on earth to glorify our God,” he concluded.    

An Asylee or a Refugee? What’s the difference between an asylee and a refugee? Both meet the US legal definition of a refugee as one who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The difference is that applicants for refugee status are outside the United States and applicants for asylum are inside the United States or at a port of entry. In fiscal year 2019, the United States admitted 29,916 refugees and granted asylum to 46,508 asylees. (Source: “Immigration Statistics Yearbook,” Department of Homeland Security, www.dhs.gov.)

The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, April 2021.

New Horizons: April 2021

Welcoming Refugees in the Name of Christ

Also in this issue

From the Resurrection Comes Mercy

The “True Fans” of Disaster Response

Fifteen Years of Disaster Response: A Labor of Love

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