What if re-opening the church means re-opening our eyes and hearts to the most vulnerable?
Dr. Mark Finney
I am a bi-vocational pastor. On weekends and evenings, I lead a small church called Emmaus. During the week I lead a non-profit that serves refugees—World Relief’s office in Spokane, Washington. When COVID-19 shut down our city (and our church gatherings) in March, I braced myself for the worst in both worlds. Would a critical mass of church members stick with Emmaus through the shift to “virtual worship”? Would our church budget be hit too hard to keep going? Would the churches in our city pull back from supporting refugees through World Relief?
Recent research from the Barna Group has suggested that in many cases fears such as these have been well-founded. Roughly one third of church-goers in America have stopped attending any kind of worship—including a few from my church. Some churches are even closing—I know of one in my own neighborhood. Yet even as the church is being pruned (John 15:1-8) there are also encouraging signs that God is re-opening our eyes and our hearts to recognize and respond to our neighbors in need.
And this is where the church has made me proud during COVID-19.
Most of my clergy friends report losing congregation members, but also are seeing sustained and even increased generosity from those who remain. There was a movement in our city where many Christians donated their CARES Act stimulus checks to meet local needs. Similarly, at World Relief Spokane, our partner churches have been reassuring us that they are going to keep standing with refugees through this coming year—some are even increasing their financial support.
This makes me wonder: perhaps God is answering our prayers to re-open the church, but not in the ways we expect. Rather than re-opening our programs or our buildings, perhaps God is re-opening our eyes to see the needs in our communities and our world. Perhaps God is re-opening our hearts to be compassionate toward those who are most vulnerable. Perhaps the grassroots movement that Jesus started by calling people to love God and love their neighbor is in some ways being renewed.
The area I see this most clearly is in relation to our local refugee population. A “refugee” is someone who has been forced to flee their country due to violence or persecution. World Relief partners with churches to help new refugees restart their lives in America after they navigate the long legal process to arrive here. In normal times, most are economically self-sufficient within just a few months—but the pandemic has reversed that. Many refugees and other immigrants work in hotels or restaurants that have been devastated by the pandemic and face multiple other barriers. The story is similar for refugees living in camps overseas, or trapped along borders. Scripture is replete with admonitions to care for the foreigner, and times like this make clear why that matters—immigrants are often among the most vulnerable groups in any society, especially when disaster strikes.
In Spokane, World Relief has worked with hundreds of refugee families in the past several months who have lost jobs and are struggling. The church has been right there with us all the way: delivering food, tutoring kids online, helping navigate the complex unemployment process, and providing financial support to cover utility bills and other basic needs. The New Testament says precious little about church buildings and budgets, preferring instead to highlight activities demonstrating how these believers emulated Jesus. What a beautiful thing it would be if the chapter of church history covering COVID-19 similarly had much to say of the love shown by God’s people to children, single parents, refugees, and other immigrants.
For those interested in connecting with and serving refugees and other immigrants, but not sure where to start, here are a couple of ideas:
Reach out to an immigrant church in your community and ask how you can partner with them during the pandemic. Acts 4:34 says the first believers took care of each other and “there was no needy person among them.” The first believers didn’t have ethnically segregated congregations the way we do in America. COVID-19 may present us with an opportunity to break down some of the walls we otherwise take for granted and care for our immigrant sisters and brothers in Christ.
Connect with a ministry in your area that specializes in working with refugees and ask how you can help. World Relief is one of nine national organizations that partner with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees in communities across the US. We all would certainly appreciate financial support, donations (e.g., school supplies and clothes), prayer, and—even in the midst of the pandemic, albeit with some modifications in the interest of public health—volunteers (for online tutoring, food distribution, etc.).
Support a ministry that serves the most vulnerable overseas. For example, our church has sent funds to provide masks and disinfectant to a group of sister churches in refugee camps in Ethiopia. World Relief colleagues in Africa, Asia, and Haiti are working with local churches to care for the most vulnerable.
May God re-open our churches to see and to be the presence of Christ in this time of unprecedented suffering, and may it happen long before we are all back in our buildings.