August 30, 2015

Interfaith Refugee Ministries

Proper 17, Year B, RCL

Each year, the Diocese of East Carolina designates various Sundays to highlight ministries that are deeply woven into our common life. Today, we celebrate Interfaith Refugee Ministry. (Click here to read more; note that Christ Church celebrated a week early to avoid the Labor Day weekend.)

As Americans, we live in a fairly comfortable atmosphere. We might not always think we have enough, or we might want to move up in life. And for the most part, we are able to work on that. We may have some complaints about the political system or even an elected official or two. But the reality is that we have not idea what it is like to experience retribution, harsh, brutal retribution, for who we are or what we believe.

Imagine for a moment that you and your family don't have the freedoms most of the world enjoys. As painful and scary as it may be, go in your mind for a moment to where everything you have is taken from you: Your home, your possessions, even other members of your family, because they government, or the ruling group that calls itself the government, doesn't like who your village supported in the last election, or your tribe is on land that they don't think you should have, or your religion is at odds with those in power. It may not even matter what religion you practice.

Imagine having your very nationality stripped because of those, or any of a long list of, factors so that because of nothing more than where you were born, you are suddenly without a country that you can call home, or a homeland that recognizes you as a citizen.

According to the United Nations High Council on Refugees, 51.2 million people were considered refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced, as of June 2014. That's the highest number since the end of World War II.  There were 17 million people living in camps in places like Rwanda, Kenya, and Jordan. Syrian refugees account for over 3 million people. If you break those numbers down, a human being, a child of God, is forced to flee their home or their homeland every four seconds. (Reference)

It would be nice to think that other countries would open their borders and say, "Come! Make a home here!" But with few exceptions, nations throughout history have been hard pressed to open their gates to those expelled or driven out of their homeland. Even the United States turned away a vessel with over 900 ethnic Jews from Germany in 1939, sending them back to a certain and terrible fate.

Those countries that do take in refugees are more likely to lave them in rustic (to put it kindly) camps. Hardly a way to start a new life. Time magazine had a story in their June 4th issue about a ship with over 400 Burmese refugees who were abandoned by the crew and were sent back and forth across the Bay of Bengal between Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. No one wanted them to disembark on their shore. They eventually landed in a remote part of Indonesia, despite the Navy's attempt to keep them away. And the Army is doing all they can to make sure the refugees stay in that small, remote area.

Thanks be to God, what secular institutions fail to do, people of faith often will. Among the many ministries of the Episcopal Church is Episcopal Migration Ministries. For 75 years, the Episcopal Church has been helping to resettle refugees, first through the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief (now known as Episcopal Relief and Development). In 1988, Episcopal Migration Ministries was separated from that as a more concentrated effort to resettle refugees from around the world on behalf of the Episcopal Church. It is an organization which strives to be the living example of the Church's commitment to the stranger in our midst. Their vision is to uphold the dignity of every human being by advancing our nation's legacy of welcome. Just last week, at the 10:00 service, over 275 of us recommitted ourselves as well to respecting that same dignity during the Baptismal liturgy.

In 2014, nearly 70,000 refugees were resettled in the United States. Episcopal Migration Ministries helped with around 5,000 of those. It's a drop in the bucket compared to the 51.2 million I mentioned earlier. But it's something. And it means a chance for a new life and a new start for 70,000 people.
Episcopal Migration Ministries works with 26 dioceses across the Episcopal Church, including the Diocese of East Carolina, through Interfaith Refugee Ministries, headquartered here in New Bern with a sub-office in Wilmington. Each year, Interfaith Refugee Ministries resettles families from around the globe to begin a new life in Eastern North Carolina. They have come from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Many from the Karen community worship with us and in other churches in the area.

Part of that resettlement includes learning English, school enrollment, and job placement. And it takes hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life to help make that happen. Those seeking a new life quickly become a part of the fabric of the community. During the recent school re-zoning in Craven County, several schools with large Burmese populations saw those students move to another school. One school secretary I know told me that she had called her counterparts at all the schools "her kids" wold be going to tell them how great each one was, and if they had any trouble acclimating, she'd be glad to help in any way. She knew enough of what these kids and their families had been through to get here; she wasn't going to let something silly like a school transfer be a stumbling block to them.

The work of IRM, and organizations like and the volunteers who help make the run, are a reflection of our Gospel lesson and the part of the Letter of James we heard earlier. Jesus in a bit of a spot with the religious leaders over what was right and wrong about various practices of religion. This passage is sandwiched right between Mark's two accounts of Jesus feeding the multitudes. If we look at all these chapters, we see that Jesus feeds people because they are hungry. Not because they ask or because they are worthy, but because they are beloved Children of God. It echos other parts of the Gospel where Jesus heals people simply because they believe he can do it.

James, Jesus' brother, is the leader of the faithful in Jerusalem, and he implores his flock to be "DO-ERS" of the Word, and not merely "HEAR-ERS," to be people who don't just look on the exercise of their faith as a "nice thing to do" or get too hung up on ritual and forget the purpose of why we gather. The directive to care for widows and orphans harkens back to multiple prophets of old who reminded Israel what God expected of them. As a people liberated by God from Egypt, they were to treat the marginalized in their midst with compassion, something I'd say all of us need a reminder of from time to time, and something that those at Interfaith Refugee Ministries remind us of on a daily basis.

The work of Interfaith Refugee Ministries is not unlike the call each of us from God: to care for those whom God has made and loved and to show compassion for them. No one person, no one church, no one agency can do it all. with God as our guide, the Holy Spirit as our companion, and Jesus as the light to lead the way, we can all do our part in easing the pain of others and welcoming those who have no where else to turn.

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