Does anyone care anymore?
I just read a perspective piece in the Washington Post from Jeremy Courtney reporting that the Trump administration is now actively deporting Iraqi Christians back to their homeland. This is the same administration who rallied evangelicals around the idea that Muslims were being given preference over Christians under the Obama administration in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. Trump commented about his view on these Christians: “We are going to help them. They’ve been horribly treated.”
Many of my politically conservative friends used Trump’s outrage about President Barack Obama’s perceived religious bias as an indicator of how he would handle the issue of persecuted Christians globally. And, yet, here we are. I am certain that many of the defenders of religious freedom in churches across America will remain largely silently as families are torn apart and these Iraqis are forcibly removed back to the country they fled because of religious persecution. In its silence the U.S. church is willingly passing on a long-standing tradition of the body of Christ in America as one that cares for the global body of Christ.
Can the U.S. church continue to be touted as a place of sanctuary, a place of refuge or safety? If the church in America isn’t outraged, vocal and actively pursuing a reversal of the policy of deporting Iraqi Christians back to their homeland, then who will? Who will stop an action that will send these people back to Iraq to face almost certain intense persecution and potentially death? Again, if not the church, then who? Who cares?
I remember back in the mid-1980s I left the city of my birth — Bangkok, Thailand — to come to the United States to attend college. As the son of Baptist missionaries, I had spent 15 of my 18 years in Thailand. I recall that I had a love-hate relationship with America. On the one hand, we had been back and forth to the United States every four years for a year of “furlough.” I had to live those years in a land that was foreign to me. Public school in Louisiana during those furloughs was rough. I was extracted from my international school in Bangkok and plopped down into a community that thought I was weird and different. Most of the kids thought I must have been a “Yankee” and frequently prodded me with questions about why I “talked funny.”
At the same time, this was a country of freedom. America represented an idea of a people who cared about the plight of the world and were eager to engage it. The American church sent out missionaries like my folks to share the love of Jesus with others. America represented a place with a church on every corner filled with people who were supposed to care about refugees and who actively pursued coming to the aid of the oppressed. I have my own immigrant story.
I am certain that Iraqi Christians who were fortunate enough to make their way here in the past decade had their own ideas of how life in America would be. I imagine they hoped to be loved and accepted, if not by American society at large, then by the church. Where is that church today? On that initial trip back to America for college, I will never forget an interaction I had with a tall Texan at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Disoriented and confused from a long series of flights, I walked up nervously to this guy sporting a 10-gallon cowboy hat and asked if he knew where baggage claim was. He said, “Hell, I won’t just tell you, I’ll take you there. Follow me!” Where is that guy?
Reflecting on all of the politics and rhetoric of the past couple of years here in the country I now proudly call home I am left wondering about the relevancy of the Christian church in America today as a place of sanctuary. Through all of our bluster on either side of the political equation are we still a church that rallies behind aid to the oppressed? Do we care about those who are being persecuted and are in that situation because they have declared themselves Christians? Do we even really care about the gospel anymore? Are we patient or kind? Do we any longer delight in truth and reject evil? Do we care? In fairness, there are some churches which are coming to the aid of Iraqi immigrants like Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church in Southfield, Mich. But this kind of crisis requires more than a handful of churches to speak out and engage with tangible action.
I’ll leave you with the story of a hopeful immigrant patriarch who I encountered on the border of Syria a couple of years ago. This man had fled worn-torn Syria with his family and was now a homeless nomad. I was working at the time as a video producer for a Southern Baptist non-profit. We were there to document the plight of Syrian refugees and show how the U.S. church was responding. As the crew and I entered this man’s dwelling we went across the room and quietly sat down. Our host, this older Muslim patriarch, began to point over at me and gestured at my wrist. I knew immediately that he was pointing to the many bracelets I wear from countries I have traveled through during my decades-long career. I was immediately embarrassed thinking that my bracelets were somehow a cultural faux-pas in Syrian culture. I mean men probably don’t wear bracelets in Syria. Then something happened I will never forget. This older Syrian man who had fled conflict with few personal possessions stood up and walked over to me. I jumped up to greet him and as I did he quickly took a cheap bracelet off of his wrist — one of his few remaining belongings, I am sure — and put it on my wrist. As I realized this immensely kind gesture, I begin to sob and returned the favor by exchanging one of my silver bracelets and putting it on his arm.
I tell that story as a reminder that when we think about the people who are desperate to resettle here in the U.S. we need to remember that many of them are escaping religious oppression and ethnic struggle. They aren’t coming here to terrorize us; they are looking for sanctuary. Many of these immigrants are kind, gracious and loving people. So for Iraqis and Syrians — Christian and Muslim alike — who can they depend on once they arrive? Do we as the church care? If we aren’t vocal about the plight of these fellow Iraqi Christians we are complicit in sending them back into persecution. Not only are we ignoring our potential role as “Good Samaritan,” we are buckling these traumatized persecuted Christians into their seats and flying them back to their oppressors.