Author: Eugene Cho (editor), Samira Izadi Page (editor)
Publishing Date: May 4, 2021
Pages: 224 (Paperback)
Last week, I attended the funeral of one of my wife’s sponsors. “Sponsor” is an entirely inappropriate identifier in this case. Yes, this woman and her husband along with five other couples from our church “sponsored” my wife’s family as refugees forty-one years ago, but “sponsor” doesn’t begin to explain the relationship that formed.
Over the years, “sponsor” meant, among other things, spending every Sunday morning after church together for more than thirty years. It also meant that when relatives dropped in late on the night before our wedding, my wife-to-be slept over at this woman’s house. Just last month, it meant that in this woman’s waning days, my wife went over to her house to help get her out of the bed where dementia kept her. In this case, “sponsor” means something closer to the wonderful and difficult intimacies of “family.”
And yes, among other things, relationships with “sponsors” led to my wife’s conversion. However, it became clear for my wife long ago that the primary goal of the relationship was not conversion—or rather that humanity was the priority before conversion. And in the process of establishing my wife’s family in Minnesota and inviting them to join our church, a lot of other things had to happen first: traditional foodstuffs were procured, and ways of processing were sought out. Job training was given; jobs were found; roots were put down. But none of these things happened the way these last sentences suggest, in the passive voice. People, both sponsoring and sponsored, had to make them happen. Through those events, baptisms became a reality.
This kind of ministry, through long term relationships, is the kind that the recent book No Longer Strangers: Transforming Evangelism with Immigrant Communities wants to affirm. More than that, No Longer Strangers wants to remind the church how central this kind of ministry is, and especially how carefully American churches must tread in such ministries.
No Longer Strangers is a series of essays compiled and edited by Eugene Cho and Samira Izadi Page about ministering to and alongside immigrant and refugee communities. Cho, current president and CEO of Bread for the World and the visionary behind the movement One Day’s Wages, and Izadi Page, founder and executive director of Gateway of Grace, one of the largest refugee ministries in the state of Texas, are themselves not strangers to the refugee experience. In their introduction, both Cho and Izadi Page recount in brief their respective family’s story of migration, from North Korea to the U.S. during the Korean war for Cho’s parents, and out of Iran into Mexico and then across the desert into the US for Izadi Page.
Both Cho and Izadi Page are also familiar with the mistakes that can be made in cross-cultural ministry, especially when power dynamics exist between two groups, as they almost always do. At the very outset of their introduction, Cho and Izadi Page identify their goal for the book: “The editors of this volume and the contributors believe wholeheartedly that evangelism is a necessary and beautiful part of our discipleship. However, while the book affirms the important commitment of evangelism, we highlight the dangers when North American Christians, in particular, underestimate how their education, race, language mastery, and other factors impact their ability to love and express the gospel (in word and deed) to refugees and immigrants coming from backgrounds that include trauma, oppression, colonialism, persecution, etc.” (1)
This quote captures No Longer Strangers in a nutshell, which also might be a bombshell in the current cultural moment. Though the book will “affirm” evangelism “wholeheartedly”—a fact repeated in both the first and second sentences—the book will also include a “however” about “the dangers” of “North American Christians” undertaking such evangelism. Perhaps above all, this quote tells us about the authors and audience: No Longer Strangers is written to those American Christians who are willing to hear about what we’ve been doing wrong, and some of this critique will come from refugees and people of color themselves.
That’s a risky move these days. The danger is that some readers may be turned off and call the book “political.” Many Americans believe that the gospel makes all other aspects of identity go away or at least become insignificant; however, No Longer Strangers pushes for a harder truth and is serious about both parts of its thesis, as illustrated in the book’s first essay.
The opening essay, “Evangelism and the Way of the Cross,” by Andrew F. Bush, is a bit of a tennis match, as it jumps back and forth across the common ideas we have about evangelism. Bush begins by telling the story of how he himself was brought to faith by street evangelists handing out gospel tracts. For a book that promised to “highlight the dangers” of evangelism (Cho and Izadi Page mention “prosperity gospel preaching,” “the sinner’s prayer approach,” and “false faith-healing”), Bush’s testimony was an appropriately disarming place to begin. He makes clear that No Longer Strangers is not out to discount all the ways evangelism has been done in the past, just to ask us to think better about it.
Bush also lays a biblical foundation for evangelism from the book of Acts before warning readers about how well-meaning ministries can “leverage” the gospel with financial or material support to refugee and immigrant populations. As an example, he imagines a scenario where an eager young ministry leader asks Syrian refugee children to pray to Jesus and offends their Muslim parents. However, Bush isn’t trying to make us throw up our hands and fear the laws of political correctness. Almost immediately, he recounts the history and resulting negative baggage that the term “social justice” has for some Christians before affirming the importance of “identifying with the vulnerable in their weakness” (24). Bush wants to create as wide a space as possible for discussing evangelism, not ceding ground to either conservative approaches or liberal ideas. “In critiquing evangelism,” Bush tells us, “I do not want to surrender to the skepticism of the age” (25). Rather, Bush’s essay lays the groundwork for a wide range of Christians to engage in hard thinking about—and affirmation of—evangelism.
The structure of No Longer Strangers alternates between essays by evangelical leaders discussing their churches’ ministries and short interludes entitled “One Person’s Story” where various lay people write about their experiences with such ministries. Several of the essays discuss what “hurtful evangelism” looks like. The first “One Person’s Story” is a nightmare scenario in which a ministry using soccer camps showed up at a housing project in Chicago and whisked kids away to the camp—without even telling their parents. One of the stars of the camp was subsequently invited to live with the ministry organizers for a year in another state, which he did. After that year, the boy returned to his family but got into fights at school and eventually dropped out of school altogether. This schizophrenic approach to ministry is exactly the kind of thing No Longer Strangers wants to warn against.
The book does not dwell on failures, however. The essay that follows, “Evangelizing the Hurt and Trauma” by Issam Smeir, is largely informative, insightfully uncovering the psychological scars that one might encounter in ministering to refugees and immigrants. From there, No Longer Strangers takes readers on a progression. “Doing Evangelism as a Church” by Laurie Beshore explores the difference between a distant, drop-in ministry among immigrant populations and a more rooted and committed approach. On the surface, the two might look similar, Beshore emphasizes, but the one that is rooted has the trust of the community. One of the biggest keys to this kind of rooted ministry? Prioritizing relationships over values like organizational efficiency, a cultural value that Beshore herself confesses was hard for her to sacrifice.
As No Longer Strangers progresses, the ideas get richer and more complex. As the title of her essay suggests, “Beyond Welcoming” by Sandra Maria van Opstal takes us beyond hospitality into ever greater identification with immigrant communities, stages she calls “solidarity” and “mutuality.” Later essays include “Public Witness and Advocacy,” by Jenny Yang, an advocacy specialist for World Relief, a refugee resettlement ministry which has left its mark on several of the essays. Yang helps readers think through how individual concern for refugees can and should grow into concern for immigrant communities in the public sphere. The essay “The Great Concern + the Great Commandment” by K.J. Hill marries Jesus’ summary of the law with Micah 6:8. Love and justice, Hill argues, lead to holistic outreach; evangelism and justice are not in opposition.
While the book hints at several refugee stories including those of contributors Torli H. Krua and Izadi Page herself, No Longer Strangers prioritizes ideas and ministry strategies over stories. Because Izadi Page’s story especially is so wondrous—including a vision when she was a girl in Iran, a risky escape, and a deadly crossing—I found myself wanting to know more about it. However, No Longer Strangers’ primary goal is to make readers think about ministry and the ideas beneath ministry.
Though the book is written to both supporters and skeptics of ministry to refugees and immigrants, there is a prophetic edge to the book which I appreciated. 2020 marked a forty-year low for refugee resettlement in the United States, which also reflects many Christians’ attitudes toward refugees and immigrants, a reality several of the essays mention. Beshore admits to losing families when their church got serious about ministering to a nearby immigrant community. “Those who talked to us later said the church was becoming ‘too political,’” she recounts before commenting more scathingly, “Serving cute, poor children was one thing, but being proactive about immigration issues was too distressing. Compassion is always a safe topic; justice is challenging” (60). Yang, too, recounts Christian fears of immigrants and refugees: “We in the US church, instead of seeing the humanity of refugees and having refugee stories impact the way we see and understand God, have often closed our hearts and minds to seeing how we could help, protect, and assist the very people God tells us to care for” (90).
One of the most interesting through-lines of the book is an emphasis on “mutuality.” Sandra Maria van Opstal defines mutuality in “Beyond Welcoming” as “vulnerability and dependence, acknowledging that we don’t ‘have it all together,’ that we need each other, and that we have much to learn and many places where we need to grow” (77). In essence, mutuality is when we realize that in ministering to others, we are also being ministered to in return, not in the sense of having a good feeling about what we’re doing, but as broken human beings on equal ground, just as much in need of compassion and kindness as grace as anyone else. “The us-and-them paradigm is flipped on its head when the people we serve become the servants,” writes Beshore in her essay. “When we recognize that we are serving each other, true mutuality is achieved, and God is honored” (64). Late in the book, Hill quotes Martin Luther King’s vision in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” “And this,” concludes Hill, “is how God intended life and ministries to be” (141).
I love this idea, the idea of mutuality. One year, on the anniversary of her family’s arrival in our community, my wife posted a general word of gratitude on Facebook. Several people responded with gratitude in return, thanking my wife’s family for what they meant to the community and to them individually. The word for this shared feeling was indeed mutuality, also exemplified in my wife’s assistance at the bedside of the woman who had gone from sponsor to something more like family.
Mutuality isn’t always easy. We commemorated the next stage of mutual ministry between sponsor and refugee last week, in saying goodbye to a dear friend, if only for a little while because of Christ.
For me and for many of us, 2020 was the most closed year of our lives. As we open ourselves up once again, No Longer Strangers reminds us of God’s vision of openness: that it’s in giving to others very different from ourselves that we receive. It seems simple—and it is. To serve and to be served in mutuality and common humanity over years of humble learning from each other, that is the vision of No Longer Strangers. It is a beautiful vision, seeking to imitate the mind of Christ (Philippians 2: 5-10).