By Carl Stagner
Earlier this year, a report was released indicating that the total number of displaced persons in the world is higher than it’s ever been. At the end of last year, the refugee agency for the United Nations estimated the figure at more than 65 million people.* Staggering statistics like these suggest to some that finding solutions is a lost cause. But Fairfax Community Church, our Church of God congregation with campuses in Fairfax, Virginia, and Clarksburg, Maryland, determined that something had to be done. Boldly stepping into unknown territory, their missions staff cut through red tape and navigated a myriad of challenges until they got the answers they were looking for. Because of their efforts, Fairfax Community Church now celebrates the “adoption” of a Syrian refugee family.
The government calls the church’s role with the family a “good neighbor” relationship, solidified by a “moral contract.” While the NGO (non-governmental organization) in the area is legally responsible for resettling the family of five, Fairfax Community Church has committed to sponsoring their care and restoration. It all started when Alan MacDonald, pastor of global engagement, felt moved to go beyond simply talking about the refugee crisis and how the church should respond. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much useful information available. Thus, the trailblazing began.
Churches can’t just ask for a list of families to sponsor and pick one. It doesn’t work that way. There are a total of nine agencies authorized by the State Department to resettle refugees. If you’re an interested church, you have to work with the agency closest to you, and the location of that agency must be within a fifty-mile radius. It also can’t be across the state line. Until recently, most of these agencies were not involving the church in their mission. In light of the exceptional job Fairfax Community Church has done, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more church involvement in the near future. And that’s exactly what Fairfax wants to see.
“We want to start a movement,” Alan explains. “I anticipate God using Fairfax Community Church as a mobilizing force for other churches to get involved. We’re trying to put together information for other churches that want to pursue this, to give them the missing pieces that we didn’t have and do it in a timely fashion so they can actually move ahead.” Because of high interest, Fairfax Community Church will host a variety of faith-based organizations on September 24 to share best practices and insights into their experience.
Their experience was brand new and full of unknowns. But when the pieces finally came together, the church only had two weeks to prepare for the arrival of a refugee family. At first they weren’t told where the refugees would be coming from, or any kind of background information or work history or medical information. They weren’t supplied with a picture of the family or education level of the family members. But they did learn that the family was Sunni Muslim.
Because of the Fairfax Community Church’s long history with Heart for Lebanon, they were largely prepared to work across religious, cultural, and language barriers. When the team learned that the family would be from Syria, they scrambled to ensure everything was just right—from the welcome at the airport that featured pastors from the church and religious leaders from a local mosque—to the cabinets of the home that the church supplied for them, which were stocked with just the right kind of food. Lani Willbanks, pastor of missional groups for Fairfax, jumped head-first into this project as soon as she started on staff in early May. She and Brooke Luther, director of missional groups, were charged with making it all happen. That included recruiting volunteers.
Thank God for those volunteers! They are essential to a project of this magnitude. At any given time during this project, sixty to eighty volunteers have made themselves available to handle everything from finding a place to live for the refugee family, to helping find employment, to taking care of health insurance requirements, to taking them on field trips around Washington, D.C. The church is also committed to supplementing the family’s rent for up to one year. After three months, the church will gradually decrease their support until they reach the goal of self-sufficiency. Through it all, Fairfax is actively loving a needy refugee family with the love of Jesus Christ.
As a result of this adoption, churches and even two synagogues have sought information from Fairfax about how they, too, can put their faith into action in the midst of a global refugee crisis. “It was a divine pairing,” Lani reflects, “of our congregation with this family and their story and their desire and longing to serve, which is a key emphasis of Fairfax. So we really feel blessed.”
In June, Alan MacDonald had the privilege of attending the CHOG Table in Anderson, Indiana, on the subject of immigration and the refugee crisis. As he reflects on the response of God’s people to this present hot-button issue, he’s thankful that his church was able to take the conversation a step further. “And,” he adds, “what we’re doing is helping address the fear that’s out there. There’s a lot of fear and misinformation about this whole issue, and we’re showing through this adoption that there’s another way to look at it.”
“Shukran,” the family has continued to say since they arrived. “Thank you. We are family.”
For questions about the process of adopting refugee families, contact Lani Willbanks, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Were you blessed by reading this story? Support the ongoing work of Church of God Ministries with your gift to the World Ministry Fund at http://www.jesusisthesubject.org/world-ministry-fund/.