Observing Refugee Sunday When Your Church is Divided

This article was originally published in CareLeader on June 22, 2017.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten discusses three ways Scripture and scientific studies of humility can help your congregation navigate the refugee crisis.

Many congregations stand divided on how to respond to the refugee crisis as we approach World Refugee Sunday. I personally have felt this tension; I am pro-refugee, and yet I know some Christians who disagree with my stance of welcoming refugees into the United States. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, chances are you’ve witnessed similar divides in your congregation if you are reading this.

The World Evangelical Alliance and The Refugee Highway Partnership are encouraging churches to dedicate either June 18 or 25—the Sundays on either side of the United Nation’s World Refugee Day (June 20)—as a day to “demonstrate their common concern for the welfare and protection of the world’s forcibly displaced people.”

The complexities and tensions surrounding the refugee crisis continue to mount, which appears to have made it more difficult for pastors and churches to engage with the refugee crisis. The schism among Christians exists not only in the public square, but also in church pews all around the US. As a result, some pastors are struggling to help their congregations come together in civic discourse around the crisis for World Refugee Sunday.

Yet, a recent study led by Dr. Joshua Hook at the University of North Texas which I collaborated on found that humility is particularly helpful for engaging religious disagreements like the one at hand. In this article I share Scripture and scientific studies on humility that can help your congregation navigate the refugee crisis.1

Humbly accept limitations

Humility is contagious—pastors can help their congregation more humbly approach the refugee crisis with one another by modeling humility in their own walk. Acknowledging what you don’t know makes you more authentic, and it allows your congregation’s dialogue to be more real, too.

Humility requires that your church members cultivate a willingness to view themselves more truthfully. This includes owning their limitations and admitting when they don’t have an answer or aren’t sure of what they think (Prov. 18:1315). People tend to be overconfident about what they think they know.

Research has shown that people’s understanding and view of the world is limited by their own cultural worldview, background, and experiences. Humility ought to make people pause and question the confidence they’ve placed in their “rightness.”

Therefore, encourage your congregation to pause and reflect on the accuracy of what they think they know about current events surrounding the refugee crisis. The unprecedented surge in fake news has made it more challenging to navigate what is truthful. This means more people in your congregation are likely getting duped. Also be aware that some in your congregation may not realize they’ve let their political views overshadow their religious convictions and understanding of Scripture.

Humbly listen

Teach your church members to truly listen to one another—as well as to refugees and those who intercede on their behalf (e.g., World ReliefWorld VisionInternational Association for Refugees)—with humility. Even more so, urge them to listen for God’s prompting more, not less.

Humble listening is not an easy task in this age of immediate social media responses and hot takes. With a click of the mouse people are tempted to form, consolidate, and defend opinions in an instant.

More people are also getting news curated to their interests, which is likely to reinforce their biases and limit their openness to new ideas and alternative views. People tend not to open themselves up to new information that might change their opinion. Instead, they are quick to reject or rationalize any new fact or perspective that doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve already embraced. With all of these distractions it is easier than ever for congregation members to drown out God’s voice. This is not the way to bring about kingdom change (Prov. 18:2).

Remind your congregation that humble listening means beginning not with a position, but with a posture. Speaking louder than and over others rarely sways minds (or hearts). The more superior people try to position themselves, the more likely conversations will shut down (James 1:19).

Asking questions, recognizing imbalances of power, and seeking first to understand someone else’s position are a few other ways you can help your congregation learn to humbly listen.

Humbly love others

This is a time to focus on helping your congregation build and strengthen relationships between people within the congregation who may not see eye to eye, and to build relationships with the broader community. One way you can help your congregation engage with more humility relationally is by creating opportunities to serve refugees.

Serving others as a congregation nurtures the growth of humble relationships, which in turn reduces fallout when disagreements occur. Scientific findings suggest that humility helps strengthen relationships and reduces relational friction. According to Drs. Don Davis and Joshua Hook, the Social Bonds Hypothesis suggests: “Commitment promotes a sense of ‘we-ness.’… Viewing others as humble should facilitate greater commitment.”

Research has shown that helping others creates a shared sense of meaning and purpose. Serving others has also been found to help people cope with and reduce stress, according to several research studies. Not only has your congregation been called to love your neighbors, it turns out that doing so makes loving others with humility more probable.

The Bible beckons God’s people to use their time, talents, and treasure to help others (Lev. 19:1033–34Luke 10:25–37Acts 10:4 MSG). Findings from a recent study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology imply that humility might also make people more welcoming of religiously different individuals. The study suggests humility makes people less aggressive toward one another in situations where they felt their cherished beliefs have been challenged. This doesn’t mean that participants gave up their convictions, but rather that humility seemed to help people perspective shift, to see things from someone else’s point of view.

By acting as the hands and feet of Christ to refugees, your congregation is more likely to see refugees as their neighbors, as Christ commands (Luke 10:25–37 MSG), and they are less likely to be fearful of them.


Scripture reminds us that all people—including refugees and people we disagree with politically—are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that we are to care as Christ cared (John 15:12). More than ever we need to recall the wisdom of Micah 6:8 on this coming World Refugee Sunday: “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” with our God. For it’s through the command to engage with humility that God often shows us a better way forward. Overall, we could all use a good dose of humility.


Editor’s note:

For more information on the trials faced by refugees, see these CareLeader.org articles: Helping the Traumatized and How to Increase Your Concern for the Victims of Racism.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and is the Rech Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. Follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or at jamieaten.com.

Four Talks to Change How You Think about the Refugee Crisis

Jamie Aten and Laura Leonard

This piece was originally published in Psychology Today's To Heal and Carry On on June 20, 2017.

On World Refugee Day, the issue is more important than ever.

Today is United Nations World Refugee Day—established in 2001 to “commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees”—and there has never been a better time to draw attention to the importance of caring and advocating for this marginalized population.

More than 65 million people have been displaced from their homes, and the global refugee crisis touches issues of war, poverty, famine, economics, racereligiongenderpolitics, policy, and justice. When it comes to engaging these issues, listening to those with experience and expertise is essential. TED Talks offer powerful narratives from leading experts that are a great way to look beyond the news headlines and partisan politics to get to the core of the complex ideas shaping one of the biggest challenges in our world today.

Here are four of the best TED Talks for learning about and engaging the refugee crisis. A single talk can’t make anyone an expert, or provide a comprehensive solution, but each of the four talks on this list present personal, practical, and creative entry points for changing the way we think about this important subject.

Let’s help refugees thrive, not just survive,” Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner at UN's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), tells individual stories of refugees fighting for their lives and their livelihoods. To love refugees as our neighbors, we must consider beyond figuring out where to put them and work to create educational and careeropportunities that will help them thrive long-term and break the cycle of violence and war that leads to displacement. “We should think of refugee camps and communities as more than just temporary population centers where people languish waiting for the war to end,” she says. “Rather, as centers of excellence, where refugees can triumph over their trauma and train for the day that they can go home as agents of positive change and social transformation.”

Why the only future worth building includes everyone,” Pope Francis

While he doesn’t mention refugees specifically, this talk from the current Pope delivers a message that cuts to the heart of both the refugee crisis and the human condition: solidarity. “When one realizes that life, even in the middle of so many contradictions, is a gift, that love is the source and the meaning of life, how can they withhold their urge to do good to another fellow being?” He draws a parallel between the parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of today’s society, quoting the words of Mother Teresa: “One cannot love, unless it is at their own expense."

Our refugee system is failing. Here’s how we can fix it,” Alexander Betts

In this talk, Betts, the director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, gives historical context for the origins of the international refugee response, breaks down why the refugee system as it currently stands is failing, and offers practical ideas to fix it. The vision, he believes, is in creating ways for refugees to contribute to their host countries or temporary homes. “Politicians frame the issue as a zero-sum issue, that if we benefit refugees, we're imposing costs on citizens,” he says. “We tend to have a collective assumption that refugees are an inevitable cost or burden to society. But they don't have to. They can contribute.”

What it’s like to be a parent in a war zone,” Aala El-Khani

When we talk about the staggering numbers of refugees, we are talking about mothers, fathers, and children. Aala El-Khani, a humanitarian psychologist who works as a consultant for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as well as a Research Associate at the University of Manchester at the Division of Psychology and Mental Health, demonstrates why the question of how to raise healthy children who will be able to live productive lives after the refugee camps is essential to the parents raising these children and to anyone seeking long-term solutions.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.

Laura Leonard is communications specialist for the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois.

How Your Church Can Care for Refugees

This article was originally published in Church, Law, and Tax on March 27, 2017. 

Resources to engage your church in responding to the refugee crisis.

The local church has a critical role to play in caring for refugees. Loving the stranger is core to our calling as Christians—and it’s part of the church’s DNA. The Bible is full of commands to “love those who are foreigners” among us (Deut. 10:19) and to care for the vulnerable (Matt. 25:40).

Long before the refugee crisis started dominating the news, Christian organizations were partnering with local churches to serve the people affected by this worldwide humanitarian crisis. Many Christians have long been committed to serving refugee populations both here and abroad as extensions of God’s call to pursue justice for the oppressed and to welcome the stranger in our midst.

As a ministry leader with limited time and resources, you fortunately don’t have to start this process from scratch. Christian organizations, researchers, and ministries have been doing this work for decades, and they’re eager to share what they’ve learned with local churches and equip them to take up this call to serve one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. At the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, we have carried out research projects in refugee camps and developed partnerships with various aid and relief organizations. Here are some resources I use in this work that I hope will help you, too.


If you’re looking for a deeper dive into the subject, start with these books.

  • Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis (Stephen Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Issam Smeir): In this book, experts from refugee resettlement organization World Relief offer a practical, well-rounded, and well-researched guide to the issue.
  • The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community (Mary Pipher): I’ve had friends and family read this book as an introduction to the topic of refugee resettlement, and refugee care teams from my church have found this book to be a helpful glimpse into the lived experience of refugees.


Reliable, relevant information is a key starting point for any ministry. With the recent surge in “fake news,” finding facts from trusted sources is more important than ever.

  • The UN Refugee Agency: The official United Nations office created this interactive tool with detailed, country-by-country data and summaries. Though we hear the most about Syrian refugees, there are also 15 significant refugee areas worldwide, including areas in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and the Mediterranean.
  • The Pew Research Center: In late 2016, Pew published an analysis of key refugee statistics to contextualize the data on the current refugee crisis and how the situation has developed over time.
  • World Vision: Last year, the Christian humanitarian aid group conducted a study on “Americans’ willingness to help refugees,” finding that only 19 percent of American Christians said they were praying for refugees.


Refugees aren’t just statistics—they’re real, individual people with unique stories of loss, trauma, resilience, and hope. Videos are a great way of understanding the depth of their stories and how our work can enter into those stories.

  • Clouds Over Sidra: This virtual reality documentary puts a human face on these issues as it follows 12-year-old Sidra through her home and life in Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp.
  • The White Helmets: An Oscar-winning short documentary, this film looks at the Syrian war and the refugee crisis through the lens of a group of first responders.
  • Welcoming Strangers Into Your Home: Through the story of a couple who decides to come alongside a newly-arrived refugee family, this short video from Deidox Films demonstrates what it means to follow God’s call to serve refugees.

Advocacy Websites

When you’re looking to take action and aren’t sure how to proceed, these websites offer practical steps you can take.

  • WeWelcomeRefugees.com: Here you can sign a solidarity statement and order yard signs to display as visible demonstrations of support. The site is also filled with helpful information and resources.
  • The Refugee Highway: Learn more about the church’s role in responding to the refugee crisis, including ways to pray and specific opportunities in which churches can get involved.

Ministry Resources

These ready-to-go resources will offer helpful guidance as you start refugee ministries in your church.

  • A Church Leader’s Toolkit on the Syrian Refugee Crisis: This toolkit from World Relief is a practical, downloadable guide that walks through issues of discernment and engagement, separates myths from facts, offers next steps, and includes a sermon outline for preaching about refugees in your church.
  • International Association for Refugees (IAFR) Toolbox: This webpage contains downloadable resources, maps, discussion guides, videos, books, and useful links for helping people to understand, discuss, and value the issues at stake from a Christian perspective.

Christian Organizations

Many organizations that work with refugees have been partnering with local churches for decades, and their official websites are filled with valuable information and resources.

  • World Relief: This organization helps resettle refugees once they arrive in the United States, and they have many opportunities (with varying levels of commitment) for churches to partner with their work.
  • International Association for Refugees (IAFR): IAFR has established relationships with churches and pastors in refugee camps and is doing influential work with refugees— both before and after resettlement.
  • World Evangelical Alliance Refugee Task Force: This task force is focused on “facilitating a coordinated response from the global to the grassroots level,” which includes mobilizing churches and advocating on behalf of refugees.
  • World Vision: World Vision’s strong fundraising ability and their presence in developing countries allows them to offer assistance to huge numbers of refugees internationally. The organization also has a robust church engagement arm.
  • Medical Teams International: This organization sends medical supplies and care to vulnerable people around the world, including refugees and displaced people.
  • MedAir: This organization provides international emergency services to meet physical needs in crisis areas and to assist in recovery efforts.
  • Preemptive Love Coalition: If you’re looking for opportunities to donate to international, on-the-ground aid, PLC has a large presence in Syria and is supporting people displaced by violence all over the world.
  • Humanitarian Disaster Institute: At the HDI, we have partnered with IAFR on conducting trauma and theological training in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, and we have worked with World Relief on a number of projects over the years—both here in the Chicago area and globally. Last year, we cohosted the GC2 Summit, an event to help the church show the love of Jesus Christ to refugees and refugee communities. Refugee care was a focus of our 2016 annual conference and will be again at our 2018 Disaster Ministry Conference. In addition, we’ve published research and trainings around multiple refugee care and humanitarian aid topics.

With these resources at the ready, you have access to many effective ways to engage and equip your church for this important work. May you be blessed in your efforts to fulfill this command and demonstrate God’s love for the most vulnerable “strangers” among us.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). He is also the co-author of the Disaster Ministry Handbook. He got his start in disaster ministry after moving to South Mississippi just six days before Hurricane Katrina. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website, jamieaten.com.

Hope for Restavek Children in Haiti

This piece was originally published in Psychology Today's To Heal and Carry On on February 9, 2017.

Source: Photo courtesy of Humanitarian Disaster Institute

Source: Photo courtesy of Humanitarian Disaster Institute

What is Restavek?

Restavek is a form of modern-day slavery that is estimated to affect 300,000 (approximately 1 in 10) children in Haiti. The word is derived from the French and Creole term reste avec, which translates to “one who stays with.” It typically involves a child—usually around five years old—from a poor rural family being sent to work as an indentured domestic servant for an affluent urban family. Though the practice began as families sending their children to slightly wealthier urban relatives who could better provide for them, it now more often involves recruiters who are paid to find child slaves for host families. The devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake exacerbated this practice, as families who had lost their homes could no longer afford to care for their children and felt their best option was to send them away. Restavek children are commonly subjected to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, and experience a high rate of trauma, as well as other mental health concerns.

What is SO-TF-CBT for Restavek Children?

Spiritually Oriented Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (SO-TF-CBT) is a culturally adapted, standardized 12-week mental health treatment for restavek children in Haiti. It was designed to help children and adolescents of various faith backgrounds work through potential spiritual issues that may arise and become intertwined with their trauma history. The intervention is designed to be implemented by an in-country lay counselor in a one-on-one format, with each session lasting approximately one hour. Sessions focus on topics like psychoeducation, relaxation, trauma narratives, and spiritual struggles.

Our study on the effects of this treatment for restavek children involved 20 control participants and 38 treatment participants. 

What Were the Results?

“One of the most interesting findings of the study concerned the damaging effects of trauma on one’s spirituality,” explains Dave Wang, associate professor of psychology at Biola University and lead on the study. “There’s a good amount of literature that speaks to human resilience—how trauma symptoms tend to naturally decrease over time even among those who never received any kind of mental health treatment (this trend was observed even in the control group in our study). However, what was surprising was that the spiritual struggles of the control group actually increased over the timeframe of our study (even though trauma symptoms decreased during this same timeframe). Notably, spiritual struggles took an opposite trend—decreasing over the timeframe of the study—among those who received our spiritually-oriented trauma treatment. Together, this suggests that even though the natural recovery process may lead to reductions in PTSD symptoms, damage to spirituality as a result of trauma may tend to persist and even possibly worsen. All of this attests to the importance of developing and utilizing spiritually-integrated approaches to psychotherapy—especially those that are designed to treat trauma.”

Want to Learn More?

To get an in-depth overview of the study you can read more in the most recent issue of Spirituality in Clinical Practice. Stay connected with the work of HDI by signing up for our email newsletter, and follow us on Facebook and on Twitter for daily updates.

About HDI

HDI is the first social science research center in the United States devoted to the study of faith and disasters. The mission of HDI is to help the Church prepare and care in a disaster-filled world. Located at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL), HDI conducts and translates research into theologically and scientifically informed best practices, resources, and trainings for navigating disasters and humanitarian crises. 

Dr. Jamie Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion Award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com

© HDI, 2017


Wang, David C.; Aten, Jamie D.; Boan, David; Jean-Charles, Wismick; Griff, Kathylynn Pierre; Valcin, Viola C.; Davis, Edward B.; Hook, Joshua N.; Davis, Don E.; Van Tongeren, Daryl R.; Abouezzeddine, Tania; Sklar, Quyen; Wang, Anna (2016). "Culturally adapted spiritually oriented trauma-focused cognitive–behavioral therapy for child survivors of restavek." Spirituality in Clinical PracticeVol 3(4), Dec 2016, 224-236.