Faith based organizations in the US and their historical role in Refugee Resettlement

Faith based organizations in the US and their historical role in Refugee Resettlement

for CWS Refugee Resettlement Center, Harrisonburg, VA -A.Smith, Aug. 2020



Providing refuge to those fleeing persecution is an ancient and venerable tradition. For as long as history has been recorded there have been stories of people the world over who offer shelter to those fleeing tyranny and oppression and, when they can, welcoming them into their own communities and helping them to rebuild lives worth living.


Some are guided by the scriptures of their own religion to help others.[1] [2] [3] And some are simply guided by the ethics inscribed in their own hearts. Many have defied the law of their land to follow a higher sacred law when it is clear to them that their government has failed to reflect what is morally right. This has posed hard choices for many but ultimately each person must weigh the significance of their actions and where it has required for example lying about concealing an endangered person, countless refugee and sanctuary helpers have done so, risking their own lives to protect another from enslavement, torture or death.


Individuals and faith-based organizations have joined together to form networks to protect and transport those fleeing tyranny, hiding their actions from authorities, xenophobic neighbors and even from friends. At different times in our history, notably, before slavery was banished in the United States, during WWII (Japanese internment camps) and presently, the political climate of a country has been stirred to accept hateful rhetoric against outsiders. Even today one does not have to look far to find those who have accepted the rhetoric “lock, stock and barrel” and truly believe that their livelihoods and safety are threatened by immigrants. Both of these prevalent myths are readily belied by the statistics. First, statistics show unequivocally that overall immigrants boost the economy by creating more jobs for others. As a group, refugees more than repay the US tax coffers every year for any preliminary assistance required and over a lifetime, immigrants contribute more to the US economy than the average native-born American. [4] And secondly, the fear that immigrants are actually terrorists is a conjecture whose inevitability is not even remotely borne out by statistics. [5]


The tenor of the government should reflect but can certainly steer the attitude of its constituents on any issue. Some local governments, as large as New York City [6] and as small as Rutland, Vermont [7] recognize and applaud the boost to the economy. This sets the stage for its citizens to appreciate immigrants rather than worry they will unfairly take away their livelihood. Where the national party-line is that refugees are terrorists and should be barred from even entering the country, the voice of the church, of faith-based organizations can go a long way in steering local government to promote love and reduce fear of “the other.”[8]


Regardless of true national sentiment, the US President has the power to determine the number of refugees welcome annually. In 2020 Donald Trump has capped the number at 18,000, a historical low. Christianity Today[9] reported on July 10th that only 7600 had been accepted with only three months left in the fiscal year. This number is .00002% of our population.[10] At the end of 2019, there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world.[11] Twenty-six million were refugees, 4.2 million seeking asylum and 45.7 million displaced within their own country.[12]


On top of severely limiting entry into the country, our president has unilaterally made a staggering number of policy changes via executive order that affect how the immigration courts operate, humanitarian programs and statuses, adjustments to how the State Department processes visa applications and admits foreign nationals to the United States, and enforcement changes. While many of these changes undoubtedly run counter to the provisions and intent of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convention, the multilateral treaty protecting refugees, only a fraction have been slowed or stopped by the courts thus far, with the result that tens of thousands of immigrants are not only experiencing abrupt separation from their families and livelihoods, but being sent back to a country where they face serious threats.[13]


The administration’s rhetoric against immigrants has been strong and fierce and aimed at fomenting hatred. In October 2019 Trump issued an executive order allowing states and local governments to bar refugees. A brief snippet of recent history in case you’ve forgotten: despite intensive security screenings required of all refugees accepted for resettlement, in 2015, thirty-one US governors (30 of them, Republicans) attempted to bar resettlement of Syrians in their states, citing security concerns.[14] Fears can easily be stoked and the political climate roused to a dangerous pitch. At the time Syrian refugees comprised the largest refugee population in the world. Since violence had erupted in their beloved homeland, over 250,000 people had died and eleven million Syrians, half the population, had fled their homes.


The executive order was struck down as violating the 1980 Refugee Act by a federal judge in January of this year.


On the other end of the spectrum are local governments warmly connected to their population base, governments who have rallied to help the families within their communities. These are localities who see and understand the omnipresent fear of those who have already been persecuted and who, if discovered may be separated from their families forever and returned to a dangerous situation. These people are forced to live under the radar with little if any assistance. And yet they bring humanity to the community. These localities have declared themselves as Sanctuary Cities or as in the case of Austin, Texas, a “Freedom City,” havens that limit their cooperation with federal enforcement of immigration law by for instance, disallowing municipal police to demand proof of citizenship. (Trump via executive order has reacted by trying to withdraw funding of unrelated programs to these cities.)


The phenomenon of politicians stirring the populace toward racism is not unique to America. And yet globally the world is changing, moving toward a world where diversity is not only respected, but celebrated. Across the world, many cities are openly embracing the opportunity to welcome and integrate refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees coined such cities “Cities of Light.”[15]


Some US towns take a different tact, staying out of the limelight and off the political stage. A small town in Georgia, Clarkston, who prides itself on welcoming refugees simply calls itself “the Ellis Island of the South.” [16]


And without any self-laudatory fanfare, Harrisonburg, Virginia has become a welcome refuge for those fleeing persecution.


Our history here in welcoming strangers began with actions by faith-based organizations. A contemporary journalist credits the local Mennonites and members of the Church of the Brethren working to place post-WWII immigrants with ‘priming the Valley to treat immigrants with compassion and respect.’[17] In 1988 Church World Service was awarded its first contract to run the refugee resettlement center here. And then in 2000, a group of local Mennonite churches responded to the changing demographic in Shenandoah Valley and formed the NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center to address “spiritual, social and economic needs of immigrants to the area.”[18]


The extent to which religious networks assist and advocate for refugees varies. “Sanctuary” itself is a term first used to describe the protections extended in ancient Greece, Egypt and Israel and much later, in medieval times adopted by European churches who provided temporary shelter to those fleeing political or criminal prosecution.[19] This had the advantage of allowing a cleric to negotiate with the government or angry family and arrive at a peaceful resolution. Even today, the notion that one could be arrested, threatened or killed in a church is abhorrent to our national psyche. Very few confrontations take place within the walls of a church; if nothing else, it would get a bad rap politically.


Runaway slaves were protected in churches in the North during the Civil War and Conscientious Objectors drafted to the Vietnam War were likewise protected by some churches. The Underground Railway of the Civil War was comprised of networks of private individuals and religious organizations providing sanctuary and assistance to runaway slaves and was really the first large-scale sanctuary movement in the United States, though the term is most often employed to describe the movement begun in the 1980s to protect immigrants escaping from the brutal regimes of Central America, regimes the United States government was supporting.


Interestingly, Philip Wheaton, an Episcopal priest and director of the Ecumenical Program for Inter-American Communication and Action, told an early national gathering of sanctuary workers at that time, that “[t}he struggle is not against one man named Ronald Reagan but against an acquisitive economic system based on the law of gain . . . and the degradation of human beings. We struggle against a system whose ultimate concern is not refugees and not dictators and not democracies but the maintenance of an economic order in which we Americans consume most of the wealth of the resources of this planet.”[20]


The Quakers are considered the first organized group to actively help escaped slaves. The African Methodist Episcopal Church also actively helped fugitive slaves.[21] Presently, more than 800 churches and some synagogues have declared themselves sanctuaries. As such they actively try to stop the deportation of as-yet undocumented immigrants. [22] Undocumented asylum seekers are a fact of life in the Southwest. Faith-based organizations in Ajo, Arizona try also to prevent immigrant deaths in the surrounding Sonoran Desert and they search for and honor remains of those who have perished.[23]


Are faith-based organizations active today in Harrisonburg?


Very much so.


The 14th annual Taste of the World sponsored by the NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center is coming up.[24]


The most recent public showing of faith-based political support of our immigrants was a candlelight vigil attended by nearly 150 area residents at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church family center in Harrisonburg on November 11, 2019, the eve of the US Supreme Court hearing on the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, [25] followed by a march in Washington, DC to oppose ending DACA.


Active faith-based support unquestionably drives political support and the City of Harrisonburg has been pro-active in showing its support of our refugees. [26]


Church World Service operates a wonderful refugee resettlement center under contract with the US State Department to resettle refugees and asylees who have been accepted by the federal government and placed here to rebuild their lives.


CWS has resettled more than 3,500 refugees in the Harrisonburg area since 1988, helping to make Harrisonburg one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in Virginia.


In fact, today the Harrisonburg–Rockingham County community includes refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Burma, Colombia, Congo, Croatia, Cuba, El Salvador, Eritrea, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.[27]


To better understand exactly who CWS is and who they are helping resettle, a brief tutorial on refugees and asylees follows. You will not be quizzed.


Technically, “refugees” are those who either have applied while outside the US for national entry and determined to have a credible fear of persecution in their homeland. To be eligible for refugee or asylum status, a principal applicant must meet the definition of a refugee set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which states, in part, that a refugee is “a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Applicants undergo a very extensive background check before being accepted and once accepted, they must apply to become a lawful permanent resident after one year.


“Asylees” are those who have either presented themselves at the border or those who have sought sanctuary by crossing the border illegally or by overstaying their visas and are seeking asylum once in the country. Many have no idea how to apply for asylum or simply cannot afford it. Those trying to make it to the border are more often than not robbed of any cash or belongings they were able to leave with along their route. Asylees are invisible to most Americans and yet are a very vulnerable group because at any point they risk being picked up by ICE officials and imprisoned in detainment centers, sometimes indefinitely and without any access to help, medical, legal, emotional. Oftentimes children are separated from parents and if no one speaks their language they do not even know where they are. And while the number of those who actually successfully make it through the asylum process is counted in the total number of refugees accepted, the number in proportion to those seeking asylum is extraordinarily low. These applicants must also prove a credible fear of being persecuted if they return to their home country. Unfortunately, if they are one of the lucky few to make it to the application interview, the overworked caseworkers in the immigration centers have cultivated a well-documented “culture of disbelief” with an overwhelming prejudice that applicants are lying in order to take advantage of the good life in America where they can shop their hearts out for every conceivable gizmo. The bottom line truth is that the decision to leave one’s homeland is not taken lightly. On average, it is four years person after a conflict erupts in their country, even when it involves genocide before a person makes the move to uproot. [28]


This plight of purgatory and frustration explains in part why the Atlanta immigration center was stormed recently by protestors seeking change in America. The weight of the uncertainty alone at every point along the way cannot be overstated. Sweden has an alarming number of refugee children who become overwhelmed with fear while waiting for the acceptance determination and fall into comas, lasting anywhere from 6 months to two years. [29]


Most US citizens remain blissfully unaware of the plight of asylees in America. It is inconceivable to many that one can be detained in America without due process of law, yet that is exactly what is happening in Dickensian detention centers across the country run by for-profit corporations that also run prisons. These corporations[30] have been awarded multi-year billion-dollar contracts outside the federal procurement system, which would at the very least ensure competition. [31] It raises questions too whether even minimum safeguards like employee background checks are required. As it is, allegations have surfaced in these detention centers of squalid living conditions, rape, torture and even death from easily treatable medical conditions overseers have failed and refused to address.


If an asylee makes it through the application process, they too have a right to apply to be a lawful permanent resident after one year in the United States.


Once granted asylee status, one may become eligible to receive services through the Office of Refugee Resettlement.


It is these refugees and asylees, who have proven a credible fear of persecution in their homeland and who have been through extensive background checks who have been accepted into the Refugee Resettlement program in Harrisonburg and who are, with your magnificent help integrating into the community and rebuilding their lives.


Presently nine refugee resettlement centers hold contracts with the US State Department for resettling refugees. These agencies meet regularly to review the approved list of refugees and appropriately match them to one of 190 locales across the country where their needs can best be met. Each resettlement center has a host of affiliates to help them with the many facets of welcoming and integrating refugees. Where will a newcomer be placed? Their needs are reviewed and discussed all round. Consider just one facet, like language: not all areas will be able to provide language assistance in Kurundi, one of the languages spoken in Burundi. As anyone who has traveled knows, different societies approach life in unimaginatively varied ways and charades can only go far. Even a culture as similar as ours, Austria, sells the kitchen to a new renter. If someone who knows limited English is trying to ask you about this, would you have a clue? And there are the many cultural nuances one must learn. Looking someone in the eyes is a sign of honesty and forthrightness in America and is something a job interviewer wants to see and yet in many cultures it is bad to look someone in the eyes, inviting trouble and revealing a dark nature. Someone speaking the same language can help a new arrival tremendously.


Affiliates are often needed to find housing, employment, life skills classes, English classes, day care, and medical assistance. Sometimes a new arrival will have special needs like diabetes, autism, or PTSD. Beyond ensuring basic needs are met, resettlement agencies work to fully integrate new residents into the community, helping them to find friends, training in their areas of interest, faith-based communities that nurture their beliefs…in short, everything it takes to help them create a meaningful life in their new home. Caseworkers must be resilient and on the lookout for the unexpected and figure out who to reach out to for additional help. Resettlement centers also rely on a base of volunteers to provide support, from providing transportation to helping a new arrival shop for groceries.


Apart from helping refugees resettle, each resettlement center has its own mission statement and they go to different lengths in advocating for political reform. But advocate they do. The faith-based agencies see it as their moral obligation to protect and care for others and in these times that requires challenging laws adversely affecting the already-vulnerable. One might think that challenging government policies would be a nuanced dance where the federal government holds the contract with the agency. However, each of the nine resettlement agencies has strongly condemned the recent anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration, some even filing lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of his executive orders.[32] In the book, “Welcoming the Stranger,” co-author Matthew Soerens, the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, not only lays out the biblical passages directing followers of Christ to welcome and assist the stranger in our midst, but also adamantly contends that Christians “are called to advocacy.”[33]


In the past, the issue of welcoming refugees has been a nonpartisan one. In fact, the Refugee Act of 1980 passed with unanimous bipartisan support[34]. However, the current administration has taken a clear unwelcoming stance that has been taken up by its most vocal Republican followers. Whether faith-based organizations can heal this division by hearkening to the heart and goodwill of its congregations to take the higher ground and love their brothers and sisters remains to be seen.


What follows is a list of the nine resettlement agencies presently holding contracts and their mission statements. Six of the nine are faith-based, that is tied to an organized religion, but a reading of the mission statement reveals that all share the core belief that all vulnerable people should be helped.


Church World Service (CWS): “Through Church World Service and Witness, members of congregations in the USA come together with ecumenical partners worldwide to witness to and share Christ’s love with all people. In solidarity with those we serve, Church World Service meets basic needs of people in peril, works for justice and dignity with the poor and vulnerable, promotes peace and understanding among people of different faiths, races and nations, and affirms and preserves the diversity and integrity of God’s creation.”


 Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) (secular), which also conducts humanitarian and development programs in the Horn of Africa, operates its US resettlement activities with a focus on helping them become self-sufficient, productive members of their communities and giving them hope for their future.


Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) is the refugee resettlement program of the Episcopal Church, and “a living example of the Church’s commitment to aid the stranger in our midst. Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) lives the call of welcome by supporting refugees, immigrants, and the communities that embrace them as they walk together in The Episcopal Church’s movement to create loving, liberating, and life-giving relationships rooted in compassion. EMM’s desire to honor the inherent value of human connection brings communities together to love their neighbors as themselves. EMM acts in covenant with individuals and partners to ensure the equity of all voices as they work to serve, engage, and sustain the mission.”


Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was established in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees. The focus has grown to extending aid “to the stranger in our midst,” protecting the refugee, and advocacy. Their mission includes guiding immigrants through the immigration process to the ultimate goal of United States citizenship; to aid them to bring their families here as new immigrants and to reunite them with family or friends already here; to foster American ideals among the newcomers and to instill a knowledge of American history and institutions, a sense of true patriotism and love for their adopted country; to make better known to the people of the United States the need to foster immigration and to promote this by means of meetings, lectures and publications.


International Rescue Committee (IRC) (secular). The International Rescue Committee helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and regain control of their future.


US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) (secular). Their mission is “to protect the rights and address the needs of persons in forced or voluntary migration worldwide and support their transition to a dignified life.”


Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) envisions a world where all migrants and refugees are “protected, embraced and empowered in a world of just and welcoming communities.” They proclaim their mission “[a]s a witness to God’s love for all people, we stand with and advocate for migrants and refugees, transforming communities through ministries of service and justice.”


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)  states that “[o]ur purposes under civil law are: to unify, coordinate, encourage, promote and carry on Catholic activities in the United States; to organize and conduct religious, charitable and social welfare work at home and abroad; to aid in education; to care for immigrants; and generally to enter into and promote by education, publication and direction the objects of its being.”


World Relief Corporation (WR) states simply that their “mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable by developing opportunities for people with a heart for serving others less fortunate than themselves.”


The Refugee Resettlement Program is a resounding success story because it is driven by those who care about helping the vulnerable. Six of the nine agencies are literally faith-based and the remaining have the same focus: to provide a home, a safe place, a sanctuary to those fleeing persecution; to help them get on their feet again; and then, to live their dreams.





[6] Michael R. Bloomberg, testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, July 5, 2006,

[12] According to the UNHCR, 80% of displaced persons are in countries or territories affected by acute food insecurity and malnutrition. This fact alone helps to portray the expanded mission of the faith-based organizations providing resettlement services in the US as noted later herein.

[26] In January 2018, the Harrisonburg City Council passed a resolution in favor of DACA: Harrisonburg City Council's resolution said, in part, "The City of Harrisonburg is committed to maintaining its long history of supporting, celebrating, and empowering immigrants and refugees, many of whom are escaping violence, natural disaster, or other extraordinary conditions. The City of Harrisonburg urges the United States Congress to expeditiously adopt legislation addressing the legal status of TPS (temporary protected status) holders and DACA recipients, keeping in mind the contributions these individuals have made to their communities and the effects their removal would have on families, friends, and communities they would leave behind."

[28] World Bank. 2017. “Forcibly Displaced: Toward a Development Approach Supporting Refugees, the Internally Displaced, and Their Hosts.”

[29] Resignation Syndrome explored in “Life Overtakes Me,” video documentary, 14 June 2019.

[30] At least two of these corporations financially supported the Trump inauguration and enjoyed sharp rises in the value of their stock upon his election. [30];

[33] Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate, Matthew Soerens, Jenny Yang, Leith Anderson, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, rev. ed. 2018.