Hearing Cliff and Angela Tuininga recall all of the places in the world represented by the refugees their church in Neerlandia, Altal, has welcomed over the years, is a quick review of recent world history.
“We started our sponsorship with the boat people from Vietnam in 1979. Over the next years more people arrived from that area, then Eastern European, and South American. Right now we have a Karen family of five from Burma and are in the process of sponsoring another family group from Africa,” said Angela.
Back in 1979, Cliff and Angela were chosen by their church to be the point of contact for the first Vietnamese refugee family the church sponsored through World Renew. They soon realized, however, that this work needed to be shared by a larger group.
A committee of nine currently shares responsibility for refugee sponsorship, with some members specializing in transportation, others in English language training, and still others on helping with medical needs, education, property maintenance, and filling out paperwork to receive healthcare and citizenship.
Though there is a committee, welcoming refugees is the work of the whole Neerlandia CRC congregation, Angela emphasized. “The church community is very generous with things like food, money, and babysitting while the parents are at ESL classes.”
Neerlandia CRC is just one of many Christian Reformed Churches that is actively involved in refugee sponsorship. When staff from the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice asked for stories of how people had been blessed by refugees, Neerlandia CRC and 22 other churches from both sides of the border responded. Many shared enthusiastic messages about how much they had learned from the refugees they welcomed.
Pillar Church in Holland, Mich., is a great example. The church started supporting a refugee family last March. Jenna Brandsen had recently been hired as Pillar’s Pastor of Formation for Mission. Supporting the congregation’s interest in welcoming refugees became her first project. “I was hired at the height of the media coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis,” she explained. “It was obvious very quickly that there was lots of desire in the congregation to be involved with refugees.”
They began a discernment process, meeting several times on Saturday mornings to talk about how they might live into the call they were sensing. Representatives from Pillar church met with Kris Van Engen and Kate Kooyman of the Office of Social Justice (OSJ), and with a representative of Bethany Christian Services, the refugee resettlement agency that partners with the OSJ and CRC congregations in the U.S., and members of a neighboring church that had already been welcoming refugees for many years.
Despite these meetings, not everyone at Pillar was initially on board with the idea. “One church member came out to our discernment meetings with lots of questions,” said Kat Schulte, Pillar’s volunteer Director of Refugee Care. “He said that he had been hearing on the news that Muslims are dangerous and wanted to know how we should protect ourselves. But he was there and willing to voice his questions and to listen to Kate Kooyman’s responses.”
Eventually, Pillar decided to assist a local elementary school as they welcomed a Sudanese mother and her five children. The church member who initially expressed his concerns about sponsoring Muslims is now a mentor to one of the Sudanese children.
“At first, the Sudanese boy wasn’t so interested in meeting with his mentor,” recalled Schulte, but then the mentor started praying in his car before each meeting. “Now the relationship has changed. He’s always telling the rest of our committee to pray, sometimes with tears in his eyes.”
“Some of the church members who were skeptical at first are now the most involved,” added Brandsen.
While seeking to be a blessing to refugees, the members of Pillar have found themselves changed and blessed as well.
“They have taught us all so much about the resilience and strength of the human spirit. They have also opened our eyes to how difficult it is to be poor in our community. It has been hard and uncomfortable and wildly fun to learn how to speak with hand gestures or sit in silence together. We are so blessed to know this family,” one member said.
Their relationships with this Sudanese family have also caused Pillar members to ask broader questions about how their city can become a more welcoming place. “We can zero in on refugees and say that we’re doing our part, but it’s part of a bigger system. How do we make our community safe for everyone?” said Brandsen.
That’s why Bradensen, Schulte, and Van Engen reached out to Holland’s mayor to talk about how the city of Holland might continue to become a place that welcomes refugees with open arms.
It is also why CRC ministries, such as the Office of Social Justice, encourage advocacy as one way to support refugees. After September 11, 2001, the number of refugees resettled by the United States decreased from around 65,000 per year to fewer than 30,000. Those numbers began to slowly climb back up to around 70,000 in 2009, thanks to advocacy efforts.
“All of these increases came about because refugee resettlement agencies like Church World Service and their constituents (like the CRC and Bethany) put pressure on the administration to raise the ceilings—which are established every year by the President and then need to be funded by Congress,” explained Peter Vander Meulen, coordinator of the OSJ.
Steve Timmermans, executive director of the CRCNA, joined several other organizations in sending a letter to the U.S. president in 2015 to advocate for an increased number of spaces for Syrian refugees to come to the U.S. Hundreds of CRC members also signed action alerts urging the President to consider this request.
“Following this advocacy, the refugee quota for Syrian refugees increased to 10,000,” said Vander Meulen. “This is twice as many as before 2015/16.”
Similar advocacy also took place in Canada. In close collaboration with World Renew’s Refugee Office, the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue advocated for increased resettlement numbers and better communication between the government and resettlement agencies. The numbers of Syrian refugees welcomed increased markedly, but there is still much work to be done.
“As Canada assesses the experience of settling a historic number of refugees this year, it’s important to determine if the resources we’ve dedicated to resettlement are appropriate,” said Mike Hogeterp, the Centre’s director. “We must remember too that Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees are still outnumbered by other refugees living in places such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Many have been waiting in limbo for years or even decades.”
In the midst of this global need, churches like Neerlandia CRC and Pillar Church are continuing to do their part. In 2014, Neerlandia CRC celebrated its 35th anniversary of refugee ministry with a special service. Ten of the 27 families that the church had sponsored as refugees came, arriving from as far as Texas and Toronto.
Emcee Cliff Tuininga thanked the former refugees “for letting us help [you], for trusting us and letting us make mistakes.” He said, “We thought that if you didn’t know English you would understand us if we spoke loud and slow. It was hard for us to realize that what was common for us was unknown to you. We were blessed by sharing in your lives, and the tables were turned when we were invited to your weddings.”
A litany and a skit from the Journey with Me refugee toolkit, which had been developed by various Canadian agencies of the CRC earlier that year, were also part of the celebration, as well as music performed by one of the former refugees.
Both Pillar Church and Neerlandia CRC explain their work with refugees as part of living missionally. In Brandsen’s words, “We believe that we’re called to be on God's mission and that we need to be formed for that work. Welcoming refugees is part of that mission.”
Angela Tuininga added, “This is such a wonderful ministry because we can’t all go out to the ends of the world, but there are so many people coming here. We can stay here and minister to people of all different cultures.”
Faithful Christ-followers from across the CRC have been welcoming refugees for decades. These churches have some beautiful stories to share.
One representative from Westview CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan said, “Having Burmese families in our worship has given us glimpses of heaven. All nations and colors singing and worshiping together. We see the world globally now. Our worship and ministry is larger than just our church and neighborhood. Helping refugees resettle is in the DNA of our congregation now.”
To see additional photos and hear testimonials from a few of them, visit facebook.com/CRCNA and view the “Refugees Welcome” album.
Being a Safe Church for Refugees
Immigration, refugee resettlement, and safe church policies are a complex equation to solve. It's complex because when refugees come to Canada or the U.S., they want to be afforded the same rights and privileges as other Canadians and Americans; but as a result of the sensitivity of their situations back home in their former countries, they also need to be protected. In some ways they need more protection than what is covered under a regular safe church policy.
For instance, with the explosion of social media, we are truly a global village. You may post an innocent picture or quote of a refugee, thinking that only people in your "group" will see it; but pictures and quotes travel fasts on the Internet. What you thought was an innocent picture or quote has possibly turned into a linking thread that could point out the whereabouts of a newly arrived refugee who still lives in fear of their oppressors.
We, as a host church, need to figure out what level of protection to afford our brothers and sisters in the Lord who are looking for a new start to life yet may also still need protection. For suggestions on how to start, visit crcna.org/SafeChurch.
—by Garret Dykstra (Ebenezer CRC in Jarvis, Ontario)