Refugee Pastors Offer Simple Ways Your Church Can Care for Refugees

This entry was originally published on Resilire Blog on April 11, 2016. 

“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career is that effective helping comes from effective  listening.”

Not long ago, some of my colleagues from the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) sat in a room full of church leaders who had gathered to discuss a new wave of refugees, and the refugee crisis in their community. The church leaders identified a number of challenges arising from the increase in refugees (e.g., fear of extremism). The conversation then shifted to possible ways of helping. One of the ways they decided to help was by tithing. 

This might not seem extraordinary, but you have to consider the context. These weren’t just any church leaders—these were refugee church leaders in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. The tithe they proposed was comprised of their food rations (which they were preparing to have cut by nearly 20 percent due to the Syrian war). 

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career is that effective helping comes from effective listening. How we listen can empower or further marginalize refugees. Following are a few ways churches in the U.S. can offer a compassionate response to the refugee crisis. Each of these approaches comes out of in-depth interviews our team conducted with the refugee pastors mentioned above.


1. Build trust

When churches welcome refugees, humanity is revealed and refugees are no longer seen as just a mass of people, a number, or a cause. Ed Stetzer recently wrote, “Faithfulness, not fear is our call.”

One refugee church leader our team interviewed shared this perspective, “You cannot command people to trust you…You can only earn trust and respect through what you are doing. . . . Then they [new refugees] decide to involve you in their matters.” The refugee church leaders were intentional about inviting new refugees from across camp to meetings, managing resources in an open way, and putting the needs of others ahead of their own interests. Building trust through transparency is equally essential for churches in the U.S. interested in caring for refugees. 

Christine Caine of A21 Campaign argued at the GC2 Summit one of the best ways to build trust with the refugee community is to walk across the street and get to know our refugee neighbors. I recently led a breakout session with Evangelical leaders on the refugee crisis. The leaders overwhelming endorsed a relational approach to building trust. One participant shared his experience living in the U.S. as a refugee. He noted an action as simple as a church family inviting a refugee family into their home to share a meal can build trust. Relationships can also be fostered with refugee churches.

There are a number of refugee churches in the greater Chicago area where I live. Churches travel the globe to help other churches. Yet opportunities for building trust and caring for refugees may literally be in our backyard.


2. Do not discriminate

The more churches approach the refugee crisis from scriptural and theological perspectives, the less chance discrimination stands. The refugee church leaders reported helping others regardless of nationality, faith, or background. They embodied the story of the Good Samaritan. They understood discrimination arises when fears replace facts.

I’ve heard some U.S. church leaders say things like, “As long as they are Christians, they are welcome.” The life and ministry of Jesus would seem to call for a much different response. Jesus did not just minister to Christians, nor did He attach “strings” when he helped. He loved unconditionally. Churches can break down discrimination by fostering more opportunities that spark meaningful dialogue. This might include having a special refugee prayer time, preaching on the crisis, holding a meeting with a refugee resettlement agency,showing a video clip of refugee stories, or participating in Refugee Sunday

At the GC2 Summit, Stephan Bauman of World Relief said, “Stories and relationships help people hear the data [about refugee facts].” Hearing the real-life struggles and challenges of refugees turns facts into faces. Many have seen the video clip of a scared father tripped by a reporter while trying to protect his child in a crowd running from Hungarian police. As a father of three young children, I experienced a wave of emotions when I saw this. Stories and images like this one help us shift our perspectives, and enable us to consider the world from someone else’s vantage point.


3. Leverage resources

The greatest resources churches have to offer are their members’ talents and a hopeful message. The refugee churches our team studied had little in way of resources. Yet they still gave. They frequently pulled together their resources in order to leverage their giving and have a bigger impact. The refugee church leaders also gave of their time, volunteering to take care of those with need. 

Roger Sandberg of Medical Teams International notes many Syrian refugees forced from their homes left with little more than their house keys in their pockets. Refugees entering the U.S. come with few positions. Thus donating funds is another way churches can help. Giving a monetary donation can feel sterile. Giving to an established Christian resettlement or aid organization (e.g., World ReliefWorld Vision), however, can help your church’s money go to work immediately where it is most needed. Churches in the U.S. can also help by collecting supplies for refugees.

Congregations might consider creating a welcome kit or providing home furnishes for a refugee family. Churches can also collect resources for organizations requesting supplies for helping refugees in other countries. 

There are significant opportunities for churches to volunteer and mobilize. Researchers have documented numerous occasions where churches motivated by good intentions inadvertently caused harm. Churches should also take steps toward equipping their members for providing care. There are several online resources and conferences (e.g., Disaster Ministry Conference) that address refugee care.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.  He is a co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow Dr. Aten on Twitter @drjamieaten and