The Refugees Among Us

John Loum (left), director of Concordia Seminary’s Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology, with one of St. Louis’ Syrian refugee families. Photo: Send Me St. Louis.

The last few weeks have been somewhat depressing or discouraging as I think about where things are within our country and where things seem to be going. We have seen heated rhetoric, name-calling, and protests . . . most peaceful, but some violent. The discourse in politics and on social issues has become so polarizing that it seems as if people do not even want to hear those they disagree with, much less attempt to understand or empathize with their concerns.

Perhaps it is the confessional Lutheran in me (or just common sense), but I learned from the Formula of Concord years ago that before you criticize another’s position, you need to be able to state that position in such a way that the person with whom you disagree says, “yes, that is exactly what I am saying.” Otherwise, we just talk past one another . . . or more likely (at least today), we just shout at each other. Perhaps social media aids this and amplifies it by providing a platform and a megaphone for one’s voice.

With respect to this, it is worth reading, “The big journalism void: ‘The real crisis is not technological, it’s geographic’” on the decline of local newspapers. The author makes the argument that as social media has grown (and with it, links to news stories on Facebook and elsewhere), people have come to focus more on national issues than local issues.

It seems to me that a Lutheran theological contribution can remind us of the needs of our local communities. Our theology of vocation (callings) calls upon us to pay special attention to our location. That is to say, it focuses on how God has placed us in particular places at particular times. The needs of our neighbor in these locations and at these times function as God’s call for us to do what we can for their well-being.

In some ways, we may think of this call from God to help as a call to exercise hospitality. This is the life to which God has called us. When you think about it, God’s two great works of creation and redemption are two acts in which God made room in his life for that which was not God. When God the Father created the universe through the Son, he made room in his life for an entire world with a myriad of creatures. When God redeemed us through the Son, he again made room in his life . . . this time for his prized human creatures who had become rebellious and violent in turning their backs upon God.

And now as the vanguard of the new creation, we are called to exercise that hospitality by making room in our lives for others. There are many people for whom we might do so. Some of them are new people who have moved into our communities. Nearly every town and city today has new immigrants moving in or new refugees being settled. They frequently come out of dire situations and may even experience a sense of desperation or helplessness as they work to make a life in a new country. Can we, as a community of Christians, make room in our lives for them that encompasses both creation and redemption?

As a community of Christians (i.e., church) we are the “instruments, means, and channels” (Luther’s Large Catechism) through which God cares for people’s bodily and temporal needs. As a community of Christians, we are uniquely “instruments, means, and channels” through which God cares for people’s spiritual and eternal needs. This is not an “either-or” but a “both-and.” And we don’t carry out the former just for show nor do we  carry out the latter as an afterthought. Both are God’s concern.

The question of helping immigrants and refugees is not only a left-hand kingdom-government issue but also a call to the church. We have to be able to think in two different ways about immigrants and refugees, in terms of the government and in terms of the church. We want our government to have appropriate immigration laws. But we also want to welcome immigrants and refugees into our neighborhoods and churches. We should not let the media or the culture-wars make us think that the two approaches are mutually exclusive.

In that regard, I thought it would be worth giving a shout out to Timothy Evangelical Lutheran Church here in St. Louis. Timothy is working with Charlie Brennan of KMOX radio to make a concrete gesture of good will and welcome to the Syrian refugees in our community (refugees who may very well feel that they are not wanted in our country). It turns out we have about 300 Syrian refugees—our new neighbors—in our town. Refugees have been required for the past several decades to pay back the United States government the cost of their airfare (roughly $1000.00 per person). So as a gesture of good will and hospitality, they are raising money to help these refugees pay back that airfare even as they are often working several jobs to make a new life in our community. Here in St. Louis, these are our neighbors, and we are called to make room for them.

For further reading:

LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations, “Immigrants Among Us: A Lutheran Framework for Addressing Immigration Issues.” 2012.

LCMS Office of the President, “A letter to the Synod’s Hispanic ministries” The Epiphany of Our Lord, A.D. 2017, January 6, 2017.

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