It was the most hopeless place I had ever been. We stepped off the bus, stiff from the long ride into Western Uganda. Our study abroad group stood around the bus, waiting for our guide to take us somewhere more comfortable. He gathered us, welcomed us to Nakivale Refugee Settlement and told us about the people from Congo, Somalia and other African countries who would live out their lives in this tucked away corner of the world.
We walked around the square plots of land and nodded awkwardly to the families living there. The scene was surreal, like human lives on display. A few of the people agreed to share their stories of escape from violence. It was this place or death for every family. The plots stretched to the horizon in every direction. Refugees worked inarable plots of land or sat on stoops wishing they spoke the same language as their neighbors. The United Nations gave each family a weekly allotment of food—just enough to survive—knowing their land would never feed them.
Displaced and without a home, the people who spoke to us were despondent. They did not feign hope for our sakes. “Why did you come here?” one man asked us baldly, “You won’t do anything for us.” “We care!” our group of American students said in one way or another, but he was right.
On May 3rd, President Biden announced that he would raise the limit on refugees from 15,000 to 62,500. It was a rare moment of celebration for people across the political aisle. While it was reported from some outlets that Biden had raised the refugee cap in response to pressure from “progressives,” the outcry came from both sides. Earlier this year, President Biden promised to raise the previous refugee cap set by President Trump from 15,000 to 62,500. When he reneged on that promise this spring, there was disappointment and pushback from organizations like World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service among a host of others.
President Biden backed into the promise he made earlier this year, and that is good news worth celebrating! Providing safety and welcome to people dispossessed of their homes because of violence or persecution should be common ground, and in the past few weeks, it was!
Welcoming as many refugees as we possibly can is an easy case to make from the Christian perspective.
The refrain of welcoming, protecting, and loving the foreigner is a track stuck on repeat in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 10 says, “So you must also love the foreigner, since you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” God instructs the Israelites to remember their own foreignness throughout the Old Testament.1
Radical hospitality and solidarity with the most vulnerable become even more prominent themes in the New Testament. The double identification with the stranger and the welcomer is embodied in Christ—he was himself a refugee in Egypt. His life displays a consistent pattern of identification with the unwelcome. And he explicitly locates himself with the poor, thirsty, and hungry in Matthew 25. Jesus is also the one who welcomes. Though he exists in unity with God the Father, he does not regard that position as something worth guarding but chooses instead the vulnerable path that leads to welcome for humanity. Jesus is both the neglected one and the host who invites guests to the banquet.
Furthermore, we see the DNA of radical welcome in the early church. In Acts 8, 9, and 10, stories of unexpected welcome find an Ethiopian Eunuch, murderous Saul, and a Roman centurion. Even though each of these people pose some threat to the church’s purity and security, they are invited by God’s spirit into the community. In each of these encounters, there is an over-the-shoulder moment where one could imagine Philip, Ananias, and Peter all looking to see if God could truly be welcoming these otherwise uninvited guests. Maintaining security and homogeneity were not priorities the Holy Spirit advocated in the early church.
What do these stories have to do with a complicated issue like refugee policy?
While we can gladly admit that experts are needed to weigh in on the actual number of refugees the United States can welcome, Biblical stories like those mentioned above train me to rejoice for steps in the direction of hospitality towards the vulnerable. Christians ought to have a hospitality reflex—an instinctual welcome for the poor and vulnerable flowing from our relationship with the poor and vulnerable Lord who never runs out of welcome for us.
Let us celebrate the recent decision to increase the refugee numbers. But what should Christians advocate for moving forward?
In 1980, its inaugural year, the United States Refugee Program welcomed over 230,000 refugees. Perhaps we should aim for a return to those sorts of numbers. The last four years we’ve welcomed the fewest number of refugees in the program’s 40-year history. What would the refugee cap be if Jesus set it? That sounds exactly like the sort of question Jesus would skirt around artfully. He might instead ask the more incisive question: What are you doing to love and care for the refugee in your midst?
In the end, there are two things more important than a higher refugee cap:
The fundamental goal when it comes to refugee policy is to root out the initial displacement. The people in Nakivale didn’t want to find a new place to live. They wanted their old homes back. No one wants to be a refugee. Deescalating conflicts to avoid war and defending minority people groups before they are exploited and taken advantage of is the best first course of action.
The second thing we must advocate for is the refugee family in our own community. As followers of Jesus who will likely avoid violent displacement ourselves, we have a responsibility to those in our communities who find themselves living as “foreigners in the land.” In Chicago, where I live, organizations like Refugee One and World Relief make this simple, offering opportunities to connect and meet the needs of the very sorts of human beings I had the opportunity to meet in Nakivale. But you don’t have to live in a big city with a large refugee population to extend radical welcome to the foreigner. Those opportunities exist in every county across America.
People who have experienced displacement are near to the heart of God. Advocating for hospitable and humanizing policies that benefit them is a no-brainer. Giving the actual effort to welcome them into our communities is the more difficult and necessary work.
Iterations of this self-identifying theme can be found in Exodus 22 & 23, Leviticus 19 & 25, Deuteronomy 23, Jeremiah 7, Zechariah 7, and scattered throughout the Psalms. ↩