The UN Refugee Agency estimates that worldwide there are now 65.3 million refugees, or “persons who have been forcibly displaced” in their terminology. Amnesty International claims that right now there are 5 million refugees from Syria alone.
In the face of such overwhelming numbers, what can one small congregation do? Ascension Lutheran Church of Riverside, led by Ruth Bernhardt-Kuehl, the church’s outreach liaison, have responded by working with RefugeeOne of Chicago, an agency authorized by the UN and the U.S. State Department in resettling a refugee family for each of the past six years.
Instead of being paralyzed by the enormity of the need, Ascension members have been motivated by what their faith demands of them. The congregation’s pastor, Chris Honig, said, “RefugeeOne resonates with us, because there are instances throughout the Bible of people of faith reaching out to those whom society has forgotten or pushed to the margins.”
Honig explained that Ascension Lutheran welcomes visitors to their Sunday services. However, they wished to extend their welcoming ways in a global context. By helping people who are forcibly displaced to resettle in the Chicago area, they are expanding the reach of their welcoming skills.
“Those of us who are Christian,” he said, “know that Jesus was a refugee in Egypt for a time, and that he kept pushing the boundaries regarding what kind of people are welcome as our neighbors.”
The refugees they’ve helped have been both Muslim and Christian and have come from Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, Syria.
“Our refugees have run the gamut,” said Kristine Herbst a past-president of the congregation, “from a family right out of a refugee camp where they had lived for 15 years to a poor family from [Myanmar] to a highly educated family whom you might think has lived in this country for years.”
The congregation has raised anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 for RefugeeOne to add to their funds supporting each family. The time investment in past years has been minimal — mainly cleaning and furnishing the family’s apartment, and meeting the family at the airport.
RefugeeOne settles the families close to their headquarters on the North Side of Chicago to facilitate easy access to the services provided there. The distance was a stumbling block to establishing the close, ongoing relationships they wanted to have with the people they served.
That, however, changed when Ascension joined forces with several congregations from Mount Prospect in resettling a family. A larger committee made it possible to actually mentor a family for six months.
Bernhardt-Kuehl said that committee members began by visiting the family at least two times a week for several months and tapered the mentoring sessions down to one a week through the sixth month.
“They were wonderful — a husband, his wife and three little girls from Syria,” Bernhardt-Kuehl said. “They came last summer, and we worked a little closer with them than some other families, because one of the daughters has a serious illness. The mentoring aspect of our service has turned out to be the most rewarding part, because we were able to actually bond with and make friends with the family.”
RefugeeOne, Bernhardt-Kuehl added, has been challenged with the ever-changing U.S. policies on resettling refugees. The resettlement pace has been rather uneven recently. However, the latest word is that refugees from all over the world are again streaming in.
“Our goal is to balance the time we spend with the families along with their need to find their own way in our country,” Bernhardt-Kuehl said.
The ultimate goal is to give them the basic skills to be independent.
In the past, Ascension has partnered several times with other sponsorship groups. Several years ago the Riverside Covenant of Churches worked with Ascension. Ascension just finished resettling a family as part of the group of Lutheran congregations from Mount Prospect.
And this year Ascension was joined by Riverside Presbyterian Church in what you might call a committed partnership, according to Steven Teune, a deacon at Riverside Presbyterian.
“Last year, as we prepared to call a new pastor, we surveyed the congregation to determine where we wanted to go, and the members said they wanted to focus more on mission,” Teune said. “They said they wanted to be mission-based, like Christ called us to be, and not just a preservation society concerned only with keeping the church going.”
When Riverside Presbyterian called RefugeeOne to begin realizing their goal of becoming more mission-oriented, they learned that the agency was so overwhelmed with the flood of refugees at the time that they couldn’t send a staff person out to assist them, and they were referred to their neighbor, Bernhardt-Kuehl.
Teune described what happened next.
“Ruth came to our board of deacons meeting, made a presentation and we all signed on. We’re kind of working as a mentor/mentee relationship in which we’re learning from them. Logistically it works out so great together.”
The group now calls itself the Riverside Refugee Resettlement Committee.
Doug Asbury, who was the pastor of Riverside United Methodist Church until he retired and is now working with the Presbyterian church, said that the Presbyterians then shifted gears and joined Ascension in doing the preliminary planning and fundraising.
Now, several weeks later, the gates have again opened and the families are again streaming in. The committee will be attending “mentor training” and shortly thereafter, a family will be assigned.