By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — Refugee resettlement is in the news.
President Donald Trump recently issued a revised policy on refugee resettlement in the United States which is being challenged in court.
Refugee resettlement agencies are downsizing and closing offices in Tennessee in response.
Tennessee became the first state in the nation to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement. The lawsuit filed on March 13 argues that the federal government has unduly forced states to pay for the refugee resettlement program, reported The Tennessean.
Nationally, some refugee resettlement agencies have recently been accused of accepting too much money from the U.S. government and even profiting from resettlement though most are affiliated with Christian churches. Such reports have been heard on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News and the Bott Radio Network’s show, “Understanding the Times.”
The nine national refugee resettlement agencies include four which are located in Tennessee: World Relief, Lutheran Services, Catholic Charities, and Bridge Refugee Services.
“Tennessee Baptists should thoroughly research any refugee resettlement agency before working with them,” said Lewis McMullen of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board staff.
In response to President Trump’s new policy which includes a 90-day ban on refugees from six countries with terrorism ties, 120-day suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and cap of 50,000 refugee admissions annually (down from 110,000), World Relief has closed its Nashville office and Catholic Charities in Nashville has laid off 13 employees.
Even if the flow of refugees to Tennessee slows, the state is already home to many refugees. Catholic Charities resettled a little more than 2,000 refugees in Tennessee during the 2016 fiscal year, reported The Tennessean. About 200,000 refugees and immigrants live in Middle Tennessee and about 175,000 live in Memphis while many live in Knoxville and Chattanooga. About 1.1 million refugees and immigrants live in Tennessee.
Refugees and immigrants are different. Refugees are assisted by the government to resettle in another country. Immigrants come with a permission visa from the U.S.
This situation presents an opportunity for Tennessee Baptists, said McMullen and William Burton, also of the TBMB staff. Tennessee Baptists should minister to and evangelize refugees, they said. McMullen is church planting specialist, TBMB, who formerly was church planting strategist/people group strategist for Nashville Baptist Association
and Burton is ethnic evangelism/church planting specialist, TBMB.
World Relief executive speaks
Tennessee Baptists have a close connection with World Relief of Nashville. Fady Al-Hagal, interim executive director, World Relief of Nashville, is also a Tennessee Baptist pastor. He has continued to be pastor of The Shepherd Field Baptist Church, Martin, while working for World Relief.
World Relief of Nashville will close but World Relief of Memphis will remain open, Al-Hagal reported. Nationally, five of 26 offices of World Relief have been closed recently.
A Syrian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1983 to attend college, Al-Hagal said, “We as citizens of the United States really do need a safe nation. … I totally honor and respect the government’s decision and our president’s decision recognizing that safety for America is for all us … not only for those who are born in the United States, but for all internationals who are coming to the United States.”
Al-Hagal was a part of the Eastern Orthodox church in Syria. He grew up with a majority of Muslims in Syria.
He reported that he did not see financial misdealings in the two years he has served World Relief. The funds received by World Relief were per refugee accepted for resettlement and alloted for the refugee. Also the “state government monitors every penny that goes out and comes in,” he added. World Relief of Nashville also raised funds from churches to supplement its budget, he said.
Al-Hagal recommended that Baptists work with World Relief which is the “only evangelical organization in the United States that has the influence of the gospel on those who resettle their lives in the United States.”
Former World Relief employee speaks
Thi Mitsamphanh, a Tennessee Baptist pastor who worked for World Relief of Memphis until recently, said he enjoyed his work with World Relief and recommends that Tennessee Baptists work with them. He also is sad to see the Nashville office of World Relief close, partly because it is the office which helped resettle his family in Nashville from Laos. He was 4 years old when his family of nine came in 1986. They became Christians from Buddhism because of World Relief volunteers from Lighthouse Baptist Church, Nashville, and were helped in so many ways, he said.
He still remembers the names of the volunteers who helped his family more than 30 years later, said Mitsamphanh.
He noted that churches, especially Baptist churches, led the resettlement efforts years ago working with resettlement agencies and then took less of a role as the government assumed more of the work. The current changes can be seen as “an opportunity for churches to get back to that, for local churches to step up and say, ‘If the government’s not going to support this work I think this is an opportunity for churches to step in and … do local missions.’ ”
He is pastor of First International Baptist Church, Memphis, and member of the TBMB Board of Directors. He also is adjunct professor of missions, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Cordova.
The immigrants coming now, including Muslims, should be seen as people the Lord has brought here and “the catalyst, the next missionary, the next pastor that God can use if the American church would step in … and say ‘We want to welcome you and share the gospel with you.’ ”
Finally, Mitsamphanh said he did not see “any misdealings” at World Relief during his 18 months there and the goal was not to make a profit. “In many ways, we would not be able to best serve the people without the support of local churches and donors,” he stated.
From TBMB’s view
Lewis McMullen noted that many churches located in Tennessee are already involved in refugee ministries as they allow congregations of refugees to use space in their facilities.
William Burton agreed, praising churches who open their facilities to refugee congregations though it will involve struggles for both groups.
“If they will become personally involved with a refugee, they will begin to understand their journey which is important,” said Burton.
Both McMullen and Burton noted that Tennessee Baptists should focus on the refugees who are mainly non-Christian.
“The work of the church is not immigration; it’s salvation. That’s what we do as Great Commission Christians,” said Burton.
Christians should consider themselves on a missions trip and hold outreach events in apartment complexes and neighborhoods where refugees live. Baptists can hold Vacation Bible Schools, Backyard Bible Clubs, Kids Bible Clubs, sports clubs, medical clinics, prayerwalking, and door-to-door witnessing, said the men. Of course, permission from the apartment complex managers must be obtained. If in a neighborhood, be sure and not block a street but instead use a resident’s yard or a cul-de-sac.
Offering English as a Second Language, Adult Reading and Writing, and Tutoring Children and Youth ministries are another great way to meet needs of refugees and form relationships, said Kendall Shirey of the TBMB staff. She is glad to assist any Tennessee Baptist in developing these ministries. Shirey is a part of the Tennessee Woman’s Missionary Union staff.
McMullen and Burton warned against the initial response of Americans to inundate refugees with material items that Americans think are essential but are not a part of the refugees’ culture. Also, do not establish a relationship based on meeting material needs, they said.
“They don’t need stuff; they need relationships with Christians that will lead them to an eternal relationship with Jesus,” said Burton.
Finally, Tennessee Baptists should consider that God wants them to learn from the refugees, the TBMB staffers agreed.
For more information on how to assist refugees, contact Burton or McMullen at 615-373-2255.