For some of you, summer is still a reality. Perhaps you’re on vacation or merely enjoying the warm, lazy days of August. For the rest of us, we might be asking “Where did the summer go?” At least that’s my question today. Tomorrow begins one of the busiest weeks of my year as residence director at Hillsdale College with the return of my team of resident advisors for orientation and the arrival of new students by the end of the week. It seems like yesterday that I was congratulating our graduates and saying “goodbye” to the young ladies with whom I shared life and home last year. On to new students and a new year!
One thing that’s changing for me in my role this year is that, after 13 years as residence director, I will have freshmen as well as upper classmen in the dorm. Welcoming the brand new students and helping them settle in to the culture here at the college is maybe a tiny bit like the work of Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM). For the most part, we do speak the same language which makes our task here a lot easier, but we also have to recognize that the college culture can be very different than each student’s home environment and previous experience. Refugee families and individuals coming to the United States find the adjustment to be far greater than that of my students so it is a great blessing that we have the good people of EMM ready to help.
One of Michigan’s own priests, the Very Rev. Jeanne Hansknecht now serving in Central New York, has been working with other like-minded groups in her community of Cazenovia, NY, to welcome new refugee families. Perhaps, their work together might inspire some of our congregations to collaborate with other community agencies to welcome refugees to our neighborhoods. The Episcopal Diocese of Central New York reported recently:
Can a small community make a difference in the global refugee crisis? Leaders in the village of Cazenovia say “yes!”
A coalition of Cazenovians—representing the village’s Common Grounds community center, local institutions like churches, schools, and businesses, the mayor’s office, the library, and the local Boy Scout troop—has come together as “Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees.” And after two years of planning and organizing in partnership with InterFaith Works’ Center for New Americans, the group has officially welcomed a refugee family to the village.
Making a new home
The young couple and their three young daughters came to the U.S. from Iraq about a year ago, after the father’s service as an interpreter for the U.S. military put the family’s lives in danger. Now they’ll live in the heart of Cazenovia, in the formerly unused manse (pastor’s house) of First Presbyterian Church.
Volunteers with the church and Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees spent months restoring and preparing the home for its new residents and showed up on moving day to unload boxes and furnishings. Now they’re working their way down the welcome wagon checklist, helping their new neighbors with tasks like school enrollment, finding doctors and dentists, and learning when to put out the recycling.
Connecting the community
“The goal is to bring this community together in caring,” says the Very Rev. Jeanne Hansknecht, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a member church with Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees. “I hope Cazenovia can be a model for other small communities.”
Rev. Hansknecht says the coalition’s work is strengthening community relationships and increasing local awareness of the need for support services. The new family needs access to transportation, medical care, and employment, challenges which affect not just “New Americans” (a term for refugees and immigrants) but current Cazenovia residents from the elderly to recent college grads.
A matter of faith
For Rev. Hansknecht and other church leaders involved with the project, welcoming refugees and caring for new and longtime neighbors is part of being a faithful Christian. “God relied on humanity to take Jesus in, and that’s a big responsibility,” she says. “But it happened, because the human capacity for love is quite remarkable.”
The Rev. Dr. Tom Oak, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Cazenovia, agrees. “People are being challenged to think more broadly about our faith,” he says. “It’s not just about coming to church. We need to take a hard look at the world around us. What are the needs and what can we do?”
With his church right next door to the new family’s home, Oak has seen his congregation transform as they’ve embraced the mission of Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees and prepared a welcome for their new neighbors. “We’ve seen energy and enthusiasm increase in the congregation overall. We’ve seen new young families coming into the church, new life, new spiritual energy.”
So what’s next for Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees? “The vision has grown,” says Rev. Oak, from “welcoming one refugee family to creating a more diverse and welcoming community for Cazenovia.” The coalition is now exploring ways to expand support services and create additional affordable housing locally for New Americans and others, so stay tuned.
There’s certainly been a lot of news about immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants over the last few years. In case you are new to this discussion, here’s a reminder that these terms have very different meanings which become important as we discuss these issues. A refugee is an individual who is fleeing their homeland because it is no longer safe for them to remain due to persecution, violence or natural disaster. Immigrant is a broader term describing one who comes to live permanently in a country other than their homeland. According to the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR), asylum seekers are often refugees whose request for international protection has yet to be processed. Migrants typically are seasonal workers that move from place to place.
Hopefully by now all of you are becoming familiar with “The Way of Love” which our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry presented at General Convention this year. As he reminds us: “It is because we are followers of Jesus, because we follow the way of love, because we follow the way of compassion, because we follow the way of human decency and kindness that we must be passionately committed to helping the refugees and displaced persons of this day.”
As I write this blog, I realize the appropriateness of this topic today, World Humanitarian Day (August 19th). This day remembers all the humanitarian workers who have lost their lives working to procure the safety and security of others. August 19th was selected because it marks the anniversary of the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in 2003 in which 22 workers were killed including the Secretary-General to Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. According to the World Humanitarian Day website, this year we…
recognize the suffering of millions of civilians caught in conflict. People in cities and towns struggle to find food, water, and safe shelter while fighting drives millions from their homes. Schools are destroyed and children are recruited and forced to fight. Women are abused and used as tools of war. As humanitarian workers deliver aid, and medical workers help the wounded and sick, they are directly targeted, treated as threats, and prevented from bringing relief and care to those in desperate need.
You can share in this work by signing their “Living Petition” here with a selfie. This petition will be presented to world leaders in September as a powerful reminder that civilians are #NotATarget and that includes all aid workers, refugees, and others that serve our neighbors with compassion and love.
We all need to do our part to alleviate the suffering and despair of those who find themselves at risk. If you and your congregation want to get involved with refugee resettlement, EMM is here to help. Their conference “Love God, Love Neighbor (LGLN)” is designed to prepare individuals to be “allies, advocates and ambassadors for refugees and the ministry of refugee resettlement.” The next training will be held in Louisville, KY, on October 11 – 13. You can find more information and registration here. EMM is also looking for congregations and communities who might like to bring LGLN to our area. If you are interested, you can contact them here. As we walk in The Way of Love we will make a difference in the lives of those in our communities and the world. We just need to begin the journey.
Let us pray –
We give thanks for those who serve others
in the neediest and most dangerous parts of this planet.
We pray today especially for aid workers
who quietly, tirelessly and selflessly give their time and energy
– often at great cost to themselves and sometimes even unto death.
May all humanitarians be given strength and protection,
that they may continue to make a difference
in the communities they serve and never lose hope
despite all the trials and hateful opposition.
Merciful God, may love cast out all fear,
and triumph over evil. Amen.
(Rev. Tony Miles)
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Coimmittee, Diocesan Council