Citing "staggering statistics about the global refugee crisis," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori joined Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson in issuing a joint statement on January 30 calling attention to the plight of refugees.
"We are confronted by the overwhelming reality that 33 million people worldwide are refugees," the statement declared, noting that "refugees are children of God -- each is someone's son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister."
The two religious leaders visited the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Chicago, Illinois, whose outreach includes ministry to refugees.
"The current migration climate in this country is often focused on exclusion and restriction," the presiding bishops said. "As people formed by a generous and embracing gospel, we must challenge our leaders to avoid cultivating an unwarranted atmosphere of fear. We must not encourage building walls or denying basic human rights to those who clamor for security and justice."
At a gathering sponsored by the Church of the Atonement, refugees shared their stories of hardship and the overwhelming help and respect they received as they sought out new lives in the U.S.
Baraka Kubaya and his wife were forced to leave Sudan and tasted "freedom, justice and equality" when their three-year journey brought them to the United States. With help from Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries (IRIM) and thanks to St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Park Ridge, they now live in safety and sanctuary. "I am happy here," he said. "I thank the church leaders for helping us."
Alma Begicevic of Bosnia and her family fled Sarajevo and were helped by St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois. Recently completing six years as a human rights officer in Kosovo, Begicevic -- now a U.S. citizen -- praised the church's ongoing support as her family forged new lives.
Hanson said it was important "that we stop and hear the stories of refugees. The country would be in a different place if we all stopped to listen."
"All of us in our backgrounds have people who were immigrants," Jefferts Schori said. The refugee work of people, agencies and churches, she added, is an important step "to transform this world into what God has in mind for all of us."
Visit to IRIM
Earlier in the day, Jefferts Schori visited IRIM headquarters, nestled in a former bank building in the heart of one of Chicago's many neighborhoods. IRIM, a Chicago-based organization sponsored by Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service, and Church World Service assists refugees from far-flung places such as Burma, Burundi, Sri Lanka and Iraq.
IRIM's executive director Gregory J. Wangerin succinctly summed up the agency's work as "resettlement, safe refuge, and opening the door to citizenship."
A statewide agency established in 1982, IRIM offers extensive refugee programs including resettlement services, English as a Second Language (ESL), computer skills, setting up households, job searches and mentoring, as well as "being a friend," Wangerin added.
Speaking to students
In her first stop on January 30, Jefferts Schori shared her own divinity school experiences and her areas of study concentration when she addressed more than 100 students, faculty and area clergy at the University of Chicago Divinity School (http://divinity.uchicago.edu/).
During a lively and warm discussion interspersed with laughter, Jefferts Schori talked about leadership and how the students as well as the faculty, are agents of change.
The full text of the presiding bishops' statement follows.
Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson
January 30, 2008
Church of the Atonement, Chicago, IL
We are confronted by the overwhelming reality that 33 million people worldwide are refugees -- people who have been uprooted by violence and persecution, including 13 million people who have fled their countries of origin and more than 20 million displaced people within the borders of their homelands. We give thanks that this has not deterred congregations and resettlement agencies from acting faithfully on their behalf.
These staggering statistics about the global refugee crisis may divert us from the awareness that refugees are children of God -- each is someone's son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister. The refugees here today, and their personal accounts of suffering and survival, should remind us that we are in the presence of courageous and persistent individuals. These people show us the fruits of new beginnings and the reality of resurrection.
The gospel urges us all to be bearers of hospitality, and to receive the stranger as if we were welcoming Christ into our midst. Organizations, churches and parishioners who are engaged in this work -- including Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries -- are welcoming some of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable people. This witness of service and hospitality not only helps those who come seeking a new life, but reminds us that love does triumph over rejection and alienation. Our nation has prospered thanks to the gifts of those who came to this land seeking a better life. Across the country we know that those stories continue, with new immigrants and the gifts they bring with them.
The current migration climate in this country is often focused on exclusion and restriction. As people formed by a generous and embracing gospel, we must challenge our leaders to avoid cultivating an unwarranted atmosphere of fear. We must not encourage building walls or denying basic human rights to those who clamor for security and justice. Our perspective should be one of abundance, for we are blessed with abundance and guided by the mandate to love all as part of God's good creation.
We urge members of our churches to embrace the opportunity presented by newcomers to incorporate their stories into our own and to advocate for just national policies on resettlement and migration. We give thanks for those who are living out this understanding and who seek to live into the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger. We give thanks for the blessing among us of those who have received a welcome and are enriching our lives with their gifts and witness.