How is the church responding to the Syrian refugee crisis?
These were the words spoken to me during coffee hour this past Sunday, not by one person, but a whole table of people. At the time, my answer was that I hadn’t heard The Episcopal Church speak to the massive humanitarian crisis. We then had a wonderful conversation about ways that we had responded to such situations in the past and what might be possible in this new situation.
“How is the church responding?” The question has stuck with me throughout the week. I have found myself pondering it while editing bulletins, between emails, and during my drive to and from the church office. I could not shake it, nor could I answer it.
Then today, clarity. My friends, we are the church.
In the past, in the times of uncertainty and crisis, we would look to our priests, and our priests to our bishops for guidance and direction. We would wait for official plans that gave us instructions on where to send our money, and sometimes where to send our time and labor. In the past, a pastoral letter and a program staffed by someone in our church or diocesan offices would comprise the official church response.
That was the past. It is not who we are now, nor is it what we aspire to be.
The wonderful people who work in the offices that we call the Commons are not the church, and the organization housed at 815 Second Ave in New York is not the church. We are the church. The question “how is the church responding” is really the question, “how will we respond?”
The crisis in Syria cannot be overstated. The United Nations predicts that over four million people are becoming refugees as a result of Syria’s civil war. People are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their families, but the road that they face is not safe. Many countless encounter death in the hardships of their journey, and those that survive the passage to safer lands find governments often unprepared to welcome them. No one country can address the refugee crisis by themselves, this must be an effort of the global community.
That does not mean that there are not things that we can do to help in the efforts. Thanks to the input of other clergy, churches, and community organizations in our state, below you will find a variety of ways that we can respond to the Syrian refugees. Some of them are things you can do individually. Some of them are things that we can do as a church community. Some of them are things that we can only do in collaboration with other churches and even other faith communities in Connecticut. All of them will make a difference.
How will the church respond? Let us find out.
We are the church and we can pray, indeed we should pray, at a time like this. Pray first and foremost for the refugees. Pray for those who have died seeking safety. Pray for those who are unable to escape the civil war. Pray also for the governments and our leaders who are trying to cope with the influx of humans who are fleeing for their lives. Pray for the individuals and the communities who are going against their government’s response and welcoming, comforting, and feeding the refugees. Pray for our own selves, that the Holy Spirit might enliven our imaginations and embolden our hearts that we might be creative and courageous in our response and be faithful in our pursuit of God’s mission.
There are no right or wrong ways to pray, use whatever words come to you. If that doesn’t work for you, try writing your prayer or drawing your prayer. Light candles and sit in silence with God, if that is what works for you. If all else fails, open up the Book of Common Prayer and start reading, the words don’t matter for God will hear what is in your heart.
Whatever you do, pray.
Support the Refugees
There are many organizations that exist to help provide aide to refugees. Some of them only ask for financial donations, others have opportunities for volunteer service. Do your research and choose one that speaks to you. Below are two excellent organizations that I can commend to you.
Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD)
Episcopal Relief and Development is the humanitarian emergency response arm of The Episcopal Church. They are often some of the first responders to natural disasters and other crises around the world. So far, the focus of ERD’s efforts have been on the Syrians still inside of Syria who have been forced to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere within the country. These Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) to regions that have not been impacted as severely by the war. While much of the focus of the international community has been on the Syrians who have fled the country, the UN estimates that over seven million Syrians have been internally displaced by the war.
A financial donation to the ERD Disaster Response Fund will help provide money to house, feed, and clothe these internally displaced Syrians. In addition, ERD is currently exploring partners in some of the transit countries in Europe through which Syrians are traveling as they seek asylum. This page will be updated if they find such a partner.
Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS)
For over thirty years, the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), a program of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, has worked here in our own state to provide a safe haven for refugees and immigrants who arrive in Connecticut. Based in New Haven, IRIS helps place families in new homes, provides furniture and clothing, and offers job assistance. In addition to these resettlement services, IRIS offers case management, education, and legal assistance as new residents navigate the process of applying for permanent residence status.
IRIS is currently involved in helping to resettle some of the Syrian refugees right here in Connecticut and there are several ways that you can help. First, you can make donations of money as well as in kind gifts such as furniture, certain types of clothing, and other household goods. Second, you can volunteer. IRIS seeks volunteers who want to work in their office or work directly with resettled families.
Shape our State & National Response
Part of the challenge of the Syrian refugee crisis is simply the magnitude of the problem. All over Europe, governments are struggling to cope with the number of people flowing through their borders while setting painfully low limits on the number of refugees to which they will grant asylum. While much of the media attention has been on these European countries, the same is true here in the United States where the cap we have placed on accepting refugees is in the vicinity of a couple of thousand people.
In the face of over four million refugees, this is simply insufficient.
To address the question, “What can we do?” a group of people from all different faiths have begun meeting to come up with a plan for how we here in Connecticut can work to address the problem. So far this is the plan that is evolving from this collaborative group:
- Work with the leadership in each of our own towns to secure a commitment from our local government to take in and house ten refugees within the town.
- Get at least ten towns to make this commitment and then use this as leverage to convince our state government to make a commitment to welcome and resettle refugees within our borders.
- Work with our state leadership and our members of Congress to introduce a bill that would expand the refugee quota of the United States to 200,000
- Seek pledges from our colleges and universities in Connecticut to provide scholarships for refugees settled in our state.
- Shape the public discourse and opinion about our country’s response to the refugee crisis by working with media partners in Connecticut.
This is just the beginning of the plan, and your help is needed. If you are interested in getting involved with this interfaith collaborative effort, the next planning meeting is on Sunday, September 20 at 5pm. The meeting will be held at the Berlin Mosque (Islamic Society of Greater Hartford) at 1781 Wilbur Cross Hwy, Berlin, CT and it would be wonderful to have representatives from our own church community at the table. There will also be clergy and parishioners from several other Episcopal Churches here in Connecticut present at the discussion. If you have questions about this work or want to learn more, you can contact me.
The Moving of the Holy Spirit
These are just some of the possible ways in which we the church may respond. And, the Holy Spirit is still at work and can lead us in entirely new directions. If you have another idea for ways that we can respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, please share it in the comments below–I will work to keep this article updated with your ideas and new information. As you find ways to respond individually and as a part of our communal effort, share it with your friends and the world on social media using #RefugeesWelcome to help spread the word and shape the hearts and minds of individuals and governments alike.