Why I Signed the World Relief Open Letter on Refugees

Today a reporter asked me why I signed the World Relief open letter asking President Trump to reconsider his recent executive order impacting refugees. She also asked my opinion on the apparent divide between the pulpit and the pew when it comes to refugees. In other words, over 500 evangelical leaders signed the letter, yet polls have revealed that a majority of white evangelicals do not feel a responsibility to Syrian refugees and would support a law barring Syrian refugees from entering the US. Why that divide? Here’s my answer:

I have traveled extensively and partnered with many organizations serving refugees. My life has been profoundly enriched by the courageously resilient refugees I’ve met in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I’ve seen the horrific trauma refugees face and I’m in awe of the way refugee moms get up day after day to face challenges most of us can’t imagine—out of unquenchable love for their kids.

And yes, many of the refugees I’ve met are Muslims from Syria. If you want to know why they’ve captured my heart, you can read about that here.

I’ve also partnered with World Relief’s refugee resettlement work in the Chicago area. And interestingly, my politically conservative dad is currently working with resettlement agencies in Michigan.

In fact, a young Muslim refugee man now lives with my widowed dad—and adds much joy to his life. My dad’s only question: “Why don’t more people with extra bedrooms invite refugees to live with them?”

I’m not new to the refugee issue. I’ve met face-to-face with women in Iraq who had been held as sex slaves by ISIS and had seen their small children murdered. I’ve seen the horror violent extremists perpetuate in the name of a religion they’ve distorted.

But I’m also familiar with the thorough vetting that’s in place for refugees admitted to the US, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing how refugees can enrich the life of a community.

To be honest, I never considered not signing the letter.

For some people, embracing refugees is a purely political issue. For me, it’s a humanitarian issue, but it’s even more than that. As a Christian, I believe that caring for refugees is an act of worship and obedience to a God whose Kingdom is global and whose “mercies are new every morning.” 

When I read in Proverbs 31:8-9 that we are called to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and “defend the rights of the poor and needy,” I feel compelled to speak and act on behalf of refugees.

I can’t address the diverse perspectives on refugees in the broader evangelical community. I can only say that while my church—Willow Creek Community Church—is politically very diverse, we have a history of engagement with refugees, both globally and locally.

Our congregation has been taught—repeatedly—about the plight of refugees, and has donated generously to support ministries serving refugees. Many in our congregation have also volunteered with refugees. This has given people who regularly attend our church a basic foundation of knowledge about and compassion for refugees, both here and abroad.

I’m not suggesting that everyone in our congregation would sign the refugee letter my husband and I signed; in fact, I know that for a variety of reasons, some wouldn’t. But I am suggesting that consistent teaching and congregational engagement transforms people’s attitudes.

With increasing public attention to the plight of refugees, I hope that more Christian leaders will teach and lead their congregations into ongoing engagement with refugees. I believe it’s the right thing to do. I also know that such engagement will expand the hearts and perspectives of everyone involved.

One final thing, which is really important: We’ve been talking a lot at our church about treating those holding opinions different from ours with kindness and respect, whether they’re outside our church or members of our congregation.

I hope and pray (and believe) that the conversations between our congregants—however different their opinions might be—would be radically different from the mean-spirited social media conversations I’ve seen recently regarding refugees. While the responses I've received personally have been overwhelmingly positive, I've been tagged into some unbelievably harsh conversations between Christians.

At our weekend service on January 29, our Executive Pastor Heather Larson responded thoughtfully—and I think beautifully—to our president’s executive order, affirming both our commitment to refugees and our commitment to unity in the body of Christ. I highly recommend Heather’s 3-minute video.