I’ll never forget last summer when an old man came to my front door in the blazing heat of the desert, face sweating and hands shaking.
He desperately asked if he could pull our weeds for some money, and I cold-heartedly sent him away and shut the door. It was because his presence made me too uncomfortable and I just wanted him out of my sight. That was a sin, I believe, and I am forgiven even though it still hurts.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with the volume of need in our world and what I can actually do about it. My friend who works with Reconciled World in India, reminded me last week that every follower of Jesus is held accountable for his or her own corner—we are not responsible for the whole world. What freedom! At the same time, “every little bit counts … we just need to keep doing what we are called to do,” she said.
I’d like to tell you a bit about my corner of the world and what I’ve learned from loving my refugee neighbors.
My city, Phoenix, receives more than 2,000 refugees every year. Refugees, like Jesus and his parents when they fled Bethlehem, were forced to flee their homes due to persecution, often violently inflicted by their own governments. The U.S. welcomes more refugees to resettle in its cities and towns than any other country in the world, which makes me very proud, but the resettlement process itself is difficult for everyone who goes through it. Psychology experts actually call resettlement the third phase in the “Triple Trauma Paradigm” because it brings so many challenges including economic poverty, language barriers, social isolation and, very often, deep valleys of loneliness.
One of the three biggest things I’ve learned by loving my refugee neighbors is that friendship is vastly underrated. “I’m happy to be here, but I don’t have any friends.” “I like that we are safe now, but I miss my family.” “No one comes to visit me; I just stay in my apartment all the time.”
These are typical comments you will hear if you visit, for example, a mother from Somalia who has never been to school and is too afraid to venture out into her strange new city alone. Just a few hours riding public transportation together, exploring the grocery store or sharing some French fries can help her feel safer and more a part of her new community, helping heal the deep trauma she still carries from years past. People need to be known. It’s so simple but so powerful, and it doesn’t require a degree or any kind of special training.
For me, these friendships honestly are priceless. I would trade them for nothing. My friend from Burma is teaching me, by her example, that it’s OK to praise God with audible declarations of his goodness or even by singing a song while walking down the street. My culture says to suppress those urges, but her lack of embarrassment is beautifully refreshing. My friends from Iraq teach me about generous hospitality even when resources are scarce. My friend from South Sudan teaches me about sacrifice and family when he sends a considerable portion of his monthly income for his nephews’ school fees in Kenya. Every culture has its lies, and I’m learning that perhaps the American worship of self-reliance and individualism is not as commendable as it seems.
In an age when slacktivism rules and wearing “Seek justice” t-shirts makes us feel pretty good about ourselves, friendship with the poor is especially rare because it requires time, and time is something you give and don’t get back. Friendship levels the playing field, it makes you see the other as your equal, and it allows for a depth of mutual refinement that can’t come from one-sided giving. While donating money and stuffing packs of dried food certainly are needed, I’m convinced that Christians in particular need to be building real, face-to-face, life-on-life friendships with the poor because it lets us share our most valuable resource—God’s love and grace—and the friction that results can be healthy for both sides.
By loving my refugee neighbors, I’m also learning that obedience produces joy. God created me to love him, to love my neighbor, and to welcome the stranger. Sometimes those things can sound so boring or taxing, but the times I’ve responded “Yes” are the times I’ve been most deeply blessed and happy. God designed us to flourish when we do what he told us to do!
Gary Haugen, the founding director of International Justice Mission, wrote in his book Good News About Injustice: “There certainly are different seasons of activity, different gifts and different needs and opportunities in the life of a follower of Christ, but if we ever look at the work that God asks us to do—proclaim the gospel, help the poor, defend the abused—and say, ‘Well, you know, that’s really not my thing,’ then we have simply made a conscious decision to impoverish our spiritual life” (p. 176).
This can sound daunting and even offensive if you ever have thought that such work is not really your thing (let’s be honest; we all have). But my experience has been that once I dive in and take God at his word, other pursuits that used to excite me begin to turn dull. My spirit responds to what it was made to do. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
Little obediences matter; this is the last thing I want to share with you. There is so much need that it’s easier to withdraw than to enter in. I get that; it’s what I did with the man at my door. For me, though, the times I’ve entered in have all been worth it. I didn’t say it was easy, but I’ve been able to defend my refugee friends against abusive landlords and employers, drive a friend in labor to the hospital, and encourage and pray with people worried about their families still in turmoil back home. What a privilege to be part of someone’s story in such a profound way.
We couldn’t save the world even if we tried, but we must respond to the neighbors in our corner with all the little obediences we can, trusting God to make something of our offering. The nations have come to our doorstep, and you can show Jesus to them without even stepping on a plane. This year, the U.S. will receive about 70,000 refugees, fewer than 10 percent of whom will be befriended by an American, let alone a follower of Jesus. If you’d like to explore opportunities in your area, try Googling “refugee [your city]” and see what comes up. Also visit the Refugee Highway Partnership to connect with other Christians welcoming the stranger.