As we are preparing to welcome asylum seekers, we asked Scott Alexander to reflect on his experience welcoming and helping resettle refugees. We are grateful to glean from his wisdom!
While we are waiting, what can we as individuals and as a congregation be doing to prepare for welcoming a family who has had a difficult journey and comes from a different culture than our own?
As I was preparing to enter cross-cultural mission work serving individuals and families entering the United States as refugees, I was given the wise counsel to intentionally assume the stance of a learner. For me, that journey began by investigating the Scriptures with a view to building a better understanding of Jesus’ approach to meeting both the felt needs and the spiritual needs of people He encountered during His earthly ministry. Making space to learn allowed for the construction of a theological foundation for my work that was, and continues to be, invaluable. I also took time to learn as much as I could (indirectly) about the refugee experience; the events that had prompted their need to flee their countries of origin, the geographical and logistical journeys they had undertaken, the role of resettlement agencies, etc.
That “learner stance” became critical as I began building relationships with newly arrived families. Often looked to as an expert who would help them navigate the strange structures and expectations of their new home, I had to invite my friends to help me learn about their cultures, their traditions, their understandings of community, of time, of responsibility—their ways of being in the world. That knowledge, built slowly and steadily over time spent observing, drinking oceans of tea, sharing stories, talking (and oftentimes gesturing) with one another in medical clinic lobbies, making dumplings, and making mistakes gave me crafted insights into how to best serve, partner with, and empower my friends in their resettling. It also helped me understand what “Good News” looked like for them; how the Gospel of Christ spoke to the needs of their hearts.
So, in this season of preparation, my counsel to us at DaySpring is to intentionally assume stances as learners. My experience of our congregational culture and character gives me the confidence to say that we are well-suited for this. Here are some of the ways being a learner might look in the months ahead:
Actively searching for and reading news stories about peoples who are on the move and/or seeking asylum. Pray for the peoples and situations you learn about.
Locating and reading essays, books, and poems written by resettled peoples about their experiences. Again, let this learning inform your practice of prayer.
Watching movies produced in different countries, portraying different cultures, and narrated in different languages (Note: There are films about resettlement specifically. There are also some mainstream movies and series that depict cross-cultural experiences well and if you watch them through that lens, you can learn a lot!).
Humbly asking someone in your personal circle who has resettled in the United States (to attend school at Baylor, for example) if they would be willing to talk about their experiences over a cup of coffee or a meal.
Engaging in a topical Scriptural study about welcoming the stranger or about the challenges and joys experienced by peoples of different cultures when they come together as the Body of Christ.
In your experience with helping resettle families, what did you find to be the most surprising or challenging? The most life-giving?
One of the things I found most surprising in my work with resettling families was how open many were to sharing life together. I lived and worked among people groups with a much more collectivistic orientation than we are typically used to in our individualistic-oriented culture. As a result, and by God’s grace, there were opportunities to genuinely join in significant sharing of life. That blessing came with challenges too, of course. When entering and residing in the lives of others, you are also opening yourself to dealing with messiness—yours and theirs. That can take shape and expression in ways one can’t always anticipate, especially when differences in culture are involved. In those times of relational or situational mess, one’s posture as an ongoing learner can help pursue a remedy, not only by employing the knowledge one has gained but also by relying on relational credibility earned through proven commitment to one another.
In my experience, instances of cross-cultural and relational stress were quite real and carried real consequences. Life together always has costs, but they are so worth it! Life together is worth exercising the cultural humility required to see that your way is not necessarily the only (or the best) way. Life together is worth the cost of allowing the tidiness of your timed schedule to be undone a bit. Life together is worth some heartache and sleepless nights—at least the Apostle Paul thought so.
What became life-giving to me, among many things, was experiencing how God has gifted the cultures of other peoples with expressions of Himself and how He can be most glorified in His Church through those expressions. My teammates and I would often ponder together: What will it look like for this people, our friends, to worship God and what will they bring to the Body that is desperately needed for us all to more fully know and experience God? Seeing worship of God happen, seeing more of Him through that worship offered by friends from Ethiopia, Nepal, Burma, and elsewhere—that was life-giving and worth every tear shed, every laugh shared.