By Margaret Colson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Please see additional story on Johnson Ferry Baptist Church’s outreach to Syrian refugees.
MARIETTA (BP) — Amid today’s tumult of political rhetoric and social discourse about Syrian refugees entering the U.S., a pastor and former Southern Baptist Convention president spoke out in an Oct. 16 “60 Minutes” report, as well as a Sept. 11 sermon, calling on Christians to lean on God’s Word to determine how to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Bryant Wright, senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, said Christians are not to make decisions about Syrian refugees “by our feelings, by our fears, by talk radio, by political candidates, by political ideology, by news stations, by news outlets, and publications.
“We are to make our decisions according to the teaching of God’s Word,” he said in his message to his Marietta congregation in September on the 15th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
During the 60 Minutes segment, titled “Finding Refuge,” correspondent Bill Whitaker reported that 13,000 Syrian refugees have resettled in the U.S. in the past year, and more are coming.
A higher calling
After the terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people, 31 governors called for a complete halt to the Syrian Refugee Program, Whitaker reported. Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal also signed an executive order denying state services to Syrian refugees, an action prompting a letter from Wright, urging the Republican governor, a man he voted for, to reconsider.
“Our calling … is far higher to follow Christ and do what Christ teaches us to do than whether there’s an R or a D behind your name,” Wright, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said during the 60 Minutes interview.
The governor’s ban was later withdrawn after it was deemed illegal by Georgia’s attorney general, Whitaker reported.
Just as the political response to the Paris terrorist attack was unfolding, the first Syrian refugees began arriving in the U.S.
“Desperation is really the one word that best describes what refugees feel,” Wright preached in September. Such desperation, he said, “drives them to what is often an impossible hope … seeking to flee a reign of terror … and looking for a better life to come.”
The 60 Minutes report highlighted the thorough screening process each refugee family must undergo before being admitted into the U.S. The U.S. security check can take up to two years, Whitaker reported.
Roles of government and church
In his sermon Wright underscored the different roles the government and church fulfill in the Syrian refugee crisis.
The role of government, he said, is to uphold the common good, to protect citizens from within and without, to administer justice and to punish evil, while the role of the church is to love our neighbor as ourselves, particularly to care for those in need, he said.
“The government has decided 10,000 Syrian refugees are coming. That’s not our decision. Isn’t it better to reach out and love these folks than to give them the cold shoulder? Which approach do you think might cause a Muslim refugee to be more sympathetic to Islamic terrorism? Which approach? To me it’s a no-brainer,” Wright said during the 60 Minutes interview.
Wright acknowledged in his September sermon, “We are living in a world of fear today in 2016.” Still, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Christians are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he said.
“Our neighbor is our fellow man. It’s all mankind – people from all religious backgrounds and non-religious backgrounds, people from all different people groups and ethnicities. Our neighbor is our fellow man and especially our fellow man that is hurting,” he said.
Drawing on Matthew 25, Wright said, “How we respond to refugees and immigrants is how we respond to Jesus.”
Jesus, he said, was the ultimate immigrant as He “left His native land in heaven to come to our land here on earth.”
A biblical issue
The war in Syria has taken the lives of almost a half million people and created the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, Whitaker reported.
Wright asked his congregation, “If you’re a follower of Christ, where is the outrage concerning the humanitarian disaster that is going on in Syria and Iraq in the Middle East?”
Members of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church began helping Syrian refugee families settle into their new homes in America last December.
Bryan Hanson, assistant pastor of global ministries national at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, noted that “a lot of people want to make this (the Syrian refugee crisis) a political issue; for us, it’s a biblical issue.”
It wasn’t the first time the suburban church has helped resettle refugees. In the 90s, the church helped resettle refugees from Kosovo, and in 2006 the church helped resettle Hurricane Katrina victims.
The first Syrian refugee family the church welcomed into its community arrived on Dec. 1. Others soon followed. Today the church is helping resettle seven Syrian Muslim families and one Iranian Christian family – a total of 37 people, including 20 children – in its upper-middle-class predominantly Republican suburb of Atlanta.
Actions reflect SBC resolution on refugees
The response of Johnson Ferry Church along with Wright’s teachings run parallel with a resolution adopted by messengers to the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention this past June, to “encourage Southern Baptist churches and families to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes as a means to demonstrate to the nations that our God longs for every tribe, tongue, and nation to be welcomed at His throne,” while also calling “on the governing authorities to implement the strictest security measures possible in the refugee screening and selection process, guarding against anyone intent on doing harm.”
More than 120 volunteers from Johnson Ferry church are involved in the refugee resettlement ministry. On a weekly basis, approximately 50 are actively serving in some way. The ministry is time and energy-intensive.
The goal is “helping families become self-sufficient, productive, and integrated into society,” Hanson said.
As the church ministers to the refugee families, “We want them to learn about Christ. Christ loves us so we love them. We want them to understand.
“There are no strings attached for our love for them. We’re sharing the love of Christ. We’re being the church as God has called us to be the church,” Hanson said.
Margaret Colson, a member of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, is a writer in Marietta and executive director of Baptist Communicators Association.