By Margaret Colson
MARIETTA (BP) — Johnson Ferry Baptist Church began ministering to a Syrian refugee family last December, just weeks after the terrorist attack in Paris that killed 130 people.
In spite of the attack and the ensuing political storm regarding Syrian Muslim immigration, the suburban Atlanta church’s senior pastor Bryant Wright was “unwavering” in his resolve to minister to Syrian immigrants coming into the U.S., said Bryan Hanson, assistant pastor of global ministries national at the church.
“Doesn’t it just make sense that it is far better to reach out with the love of Christ to people in need who have undergone incredible suffering than to give them a cold shoulder to where they possibly become embittered at the U.S. and more vulnerable to evil influences in their lives?” asked Wright in a sermon on Sept. 11.
Currently the church is helping resettle seven Syrian Muslim families and one Iranian Christian family – a total of 37 people, including 20 children and even one baby born in the U.S. – in its upper-middle-class suburb of Atlanta.
‘… it changes your heart.’
Robbi Fernandes, a volunteer with the church’s refugee resettlement ministry, noted that “when you sit with a woman refugee and watch a video stream of her sister getting married in Syria and wipe the tears from her eyes … when you help a 56-year-old man send photos of himself home to his 80-year-old mother that he knows he will probably never lay eyes on again … when you walk into school with a teenage boy and see the excitement on his face that he can actually attend school again … when you witness a call come in from Syria and hear the crying on the phone and see a man weep in despair … it changes your heart.”
Syrian resettlement in the U.S. is not without risk, acknowledged Hanson. Yet, risk “does not diminish our calling” as Christians to do “what God has called us to do.”
While fear may be an understandable response to Syrian refugees, he said, “Love drives out fear. The opposite of fear is not courage, but love.
“As you begin to have relationships with the refugees, as you begin to love them, as you begin to put faces with the statistics, fear is driven out,” he said.
Church member David Hicks, who is involved in the church’s refugee ministry, agreed.
“Once you meet these families and their children, you see that they are truly grateful for any help. As a Christ-follower, we are called to help others,” he said.
Johnson Ferry’s relationship with each refugee family begins with meeting the family at the airport and inviting the family to stay in the home of a church member for a few nights. Then the family is taken to its new home, which has been fully furnished by church members. From there, a whirlwind of activities over an extended period of time helps acclimate the families to the U.S. Volunteers also help teach the families English, enroll the children in school, provide transportation, teach driver’s education, assist with homework, help adults obtain green cards, assist in job searches, teach adults how to write checks, and use ATM’s and more.
The refugee families are “surrounded by people every day who love them. The day is rare when these families don’t receive some kind of touch from our church,” Hanson said.
The goal of the ministry is to help the refugees become self-sufficient and productive members of society as they experience God’s love through those who are helping them.
After arriving in the U.S. in December, the head of household of the first Syrian refugee family – who had never written a check in his life – was able to pay his bills for the first time this past summer. He works at a catering company owned by a church member. His son is enrolled in kindergarten.
“There is joy and pride in becoming independent,” Hanson said. “It’s very humanizing not relying on other people.”
Off the couch
For Fernandes, a wife and mother of a 13-year-old daughter, being a Christian means “action. It means that I have to get off the couch and actually do something. I need to follow Christ’s example of standing up for the vulnerable, loving the unlovable, showing compassion to others. When you turn off the rhetoric of the media and stop and look at refugees as human beings, as people that Christ died for, how can you not want to help them?”
She got “off the couch” to serve a Syrian family of four – a husband, wife, and two children. The family left behind another adult child with two small children in Syria, along with other close family members.
“The most important thing I am doing is being their friend,” said Fernandes, a preschool teacher. Practically, she provides a weekly English lesson, assists with transportation needs, serves as a liaison between school teachers and the family, and meets other needs as they arise.
She also prays for them. “I pray continually that they will see Christ in me. I pray that they will come to know and accept Jesus as their Savior,” she said.
In mid-July Hicks drove one of the refugees, a Kurdish father of three young children who is trained as a tailor, to a job interview at a window treatment shop owned by a Christian.
“It was great to see God’s timing and the father’s face as he was able to begin part-time work the Monday following his interview,” said Hicks, adding that the business owner has been pleased with the quality and speed of the refugee’s workmanship. Hicks has continued to provide transportation to and from the job for the man, and he has helped him with tax withholding forms.
In going through daily routines with refugees, talking about religion with them is “natural,” said Hanson, “because religion is such a large part of who they are and their daily lives.” The seven Syrian families are all Muslim.
“If we reflect the love of Christ with them, we’ve done what we’re called to do,” he said.
The refugees, whom Hanson has known for less than a year, “are my friends now. I want them to believe. I hope they will become my brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Margaret Colson, a member of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, is a writer in Marietta and executive director of Baptist Communicators Association.