“We had hoped for a Christian family who we could include and involve our congregants in welcoming weekly during our church service, but God had other plans for us,” said Gord VandenBerg.
Instead, VandenBerg and a small group at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., welcomed an Iraqi Muslim refugee family to their community. Since then, they have tutored family members and provided transportation to doctors, grocery stores, and even a late-night job.
“I know, having been with (the father of the family) many times, that he loves us and what we have done for him and his family,” VandenBerg said. “Even though he has not participated in the life of our total church body, he knows and senses our Christian call for social justice and compassion.”
“They have been a blessing to us in many ways,” he said, adding that one member of the committee had commented: “I don't know what impact our work with this family has had on Calvin CRC as a whole, but I would like to think we have demonstrated a tangible example of Christian-Muslim cooperation and mutual respect.”
Calvin is just one of many Christian Reformed churches that have welcomed refugees. During 2015, 27 Syrian refugees were settled in Grand Rapids alone through the efforts of Bethany Christian Services, a Grand Rapids ministry that receives funding from the CRC’s Office of Social Justice to resettle refugees in partnership with CRC congregations.
That number does not include refugees from other countries who have been welcomed and resettled in other parts of the U.S.
In Canada, from January to October 2015, 73 refugees landed on Canadian soil through World Renew’s Refugee Resettlement Office, and applications were made to welcome 158 more.
Denominational offices—including the Canadian Ministries office, the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, and the Office of Social Justice—report that the Syrian refugee crisis has motivated many CRC members to contact them for resources and support, both with advocacy and resettlement.
Two classes (regional groups of churches) in Ontario wrote letters to the Canadian Ministries director to encourage strong leadership on refugee issues.
Much of this work has been going on for years, decades in some cases.
Alice Van Stempvoort, a member of the refugee committee at Grace CRC in Chatham, Ont., said that a little over a decade ago, a deacon at Grace CRC learned about the situation of Ethiopian refugees in Egypt. “This sparked an interest in our church and other nearby CRCs in sponsoring a family of three refugees from Ethiopia. Thus began a series of refugee sponsorships with World Renew.”
Since then, four CRC churches in the area—Blenheim, Calvary, Grace, and First CRC—have partnered to help refugees with everything from doctor visits to furnishing apartments, and from government paperwork to simple friendly visits.
“What a blessing this endeavor has been,” Van Stempvoort said.
“We’ve gotten to know people we ordinarily would never have met. We’ve enlarged our circle of friends, we’ve learned a bit more of how God works in other people’s lives, and we’ve seen God meet all of our needs in some very desperate situations. That’s a win-win situation to me,” she added.
Recently there have been concerns that Islamic State fighters or other extremist Muslims could use the refugee crisis as cover to enter Canada or the United States.
Kristine Van Noord, refugee resettlement and employment program manager with Bethany Christian Services, says such fears can be put to rest.
“Refugees go through the most intense screening process of any visitor to the U.S.,” she noted. “All the various stages, including interviews and background checks through the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, take at least 200 days.”
Rebecca Walker of World Renew in Canada agrees. “After a refugee is referred to Canada by the United Nations Refugee Agency, Canada does its own interview, as well as medical and security checks, and makes its own refugee status determination decision.”
Advocacy is another key element of the CRC’s response to refugees. Last year, a workshop called “Journey with Me” launched in Toronto and Vancouver. It equips Canadian churches with knowledge about the challenges refugees face, particularly how they are affected by government policies such as cuts to refugee health care, and about how Scripture calls Christians to respond.
“It challenged me to walk in the shoes of someone and try to imagine what that might be like,” said Judy Cook of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster.
During the recent Canadian federal election, the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and World Renew released a voter guide on refugee policy in Canada with an infographic (see illustration) about the current policy environment and questions to ask candidates about their parties’ positions. The guide received huge, unprecedented traffic, said Mike Hogeterp, director of the centre.
“We’re all called to politics,” said Dena Nicolai, a member of the centre’s advisory board. “This is everybody's calling. In many ways, voting is the beginning of, not the culmination of, exercising our democratic rights and responsibilities and working toward 'the common good.’”
The Office of Social Justice has also been active in refugee advocacy, releasing four action alerts and a briefing on the American refugee admissions process in recent months. The alerts cover topics from support for peacebuilding in Syria and Iraq, to Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, to support for refugee resettlement in the U.S. and Canada.
The CRC’s efforts have drawn the attention of other church groups, said Rev. Darren Roorda, Canadian Ministries director. The Centre for Public Dialogue has received requests for the “Journey with Me” curriculum from denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the refugee resource page at crcna.org/Canada been commended by the World Council of Reformed Churches and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
“I’m proud that our cooperative agency approach produces such great resources for local churches to latch onto,” Roorda said.
At the “Journey with Me” launch in Toronto, Catholic refugee advocate Mary Jo Leddy told those attending that this is an opportunity for churches to “really become the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Leddy added, “This is not just for the sake of the refugees. This is for the sake of our country, this is for the sake of the church, of our faith that we all share as Christians.”
Gord VandenBerg echoed those sentiments. “Being a part of this ministry has made me more aware of the global need for justice in this broken world,” he said. “We look forward to a time of peace in the world where there are no longer any refugees.”
In the meantime, however, he said, “Our earthly conditions require us at Calvin CRC and all Christians to act as Jesus commands. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
—Danielle Rowaan is Justice Communications Team leader for the Christian Reformed Church.
Aid for Refugees Globally
At the end of 2014, there were 19.5 million refugees and 38.2 million internally displaced people worldwide.
A refugee is a person who, because of well-founded fear of persecution, is living outside of his or her country of origin. Internally displaced people (IDPs) are those who have been similarly displaced from their homes but are still living within the borders of their country of origin.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that 2014 had the highest levels of human displacement on record. In that year, conflict and persecution forced an average of 42,500 people every day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere. The numbers haven’t decreased in 2015. This has placed a huge burden on the countries that host them.
In places like Lebanon, over 1.2 million refugees have arrived, which has caused the population to surge by 20 percent in just a few years. This has overwhelmed infrastructure and public services.
One way to help these large numbers of refugees and their host communities worldwide is to provide food, water, healthcare and other humanitarian assistance to those living in temporary shelters, refugee camps, and communities for internally displaced people.
Currently, World Renew is providing assistance to refugees and IDPs in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and South Sudan. To learn more, visit worldrenew.net.
—Kristen Vanderberg, World Renew
A History of Support
The Christian Reformed Church has a long history of helping refugees.
In the 1960s, CRC missionaries opened the Good Samaritan Refugee center in Miami, Fla., to provide refugee families from Cuba with food and clothing. Supplies were donated by CRC members all over North America and sent to Florida through World Renew (then known as the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee).
During the 1970s, Christian Reformed churches started to get involved in refugee resettlement in the United States and Canada on a larger scale, welcoming individuals and families from Vietnam. In Canada, CRWRC has been part of the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program since its inception in 1979.
The CRC’s ministry of resettlement has continued ever since. Through World Renew and other Sponsorship Agreement Holders, CRCs have welcomed families from all over the world, including Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, Karen refugees fleeing Thailand in the early 2000s, and, most recently, families from all over the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq.