For the last three years, I have lived and worked as a Baptist missionary among refugees in Vienna, Austria. This has been a life-changing experience as I have met God along the way through the life, witness and faith of my refugee brothers and sisters.
Ironically, the most challenging part of my work has not been the endless ministry, processing the trauma my friends have experienced or even adapting to multiple new cultures. The most challenging task has been to reconcile my American identity with my witness as a Christian missionary.
For three years, I have fielded the same question from Austrians, Persians and everyone in between: “So what do you think of Trump?” Immediately after opening my mouth, my universally recognized American accent brought Trump to the conversation. His presence has seemed like omnipresence these last years as I’ve carried around my blue passport. As I professed Christ, Trump’s words and policies were perceived as being right there too.
I taught a Bible study for Afghanis and Iranians the week that our president banned the latter from entering the U.S. for being dangerous. I was living with two Persians at the same time and had to assure them I did not think they were terrorists.
I led Communion in the midst of the most heightened tensions with Iran in 2019. I intentionally chose Persian men and women to serve alongside me and remember saying the words in German: “We are not enemies. Despite what our countries and my president might say, we are brothers and sisters in Christ and equal at this table of God.”
My heart broke when a gay Iranian friend, who had fled Iran because of his sexuality, told me one week, “I was hoping to seek asylum in America, but I don’t think it is safe for LGBT people to live there anymore.” Being a queer Persian, he knows he is doubly unwelcome in America.
I have spent three years countering many messages coming from America to affirm the dignity and worth of my refugee brothers and sisters.
“I have spent three years countering many messages coming from America to affirm the dignity and worth of my refugee brothers and sisters.”
This summer, I preached from Esther 4, the passage where Mordecai calls on Esther to utilize her place of privilege to save her people. I encouraged my church to reflect on our own privileges and how we can yield them for the sake of building God’s kingdom. I was preaching to the choir, as many in my church in Vienna consistently leverage their own privileges to stand up and advocate for the refugees in our church family and beyond.
In writing this column, I am trying to practice what I preach. The world, and America itself, was built for me, a wealthy, white, cisgender male. But, one look at a page of Scripture or a single moment spent outside of my middle-class white experience and quickly I see the injustice, the inequality and pain rampant across the world. I refuse to look away.
This November, I will not vote to reinforce my own privilege. I serve a resurrected Messiah who is inaugurating a new kingdom, one that is for the captive, the least of these, and those on the margins. Those Jesus preached to, those I serve alongside, they are the ones I will vote for this fall.
I will vote for every refugee who ever has dreamed of a life of safety in America. I’ll vote for my Black female friends who are exhausted from just continuing to exist in a world stacked against them. I’ll vote for my gay and lesbian and trans friends who already receive enough hate from the church and don’t need more from the federal government. I will vote for those incarcerated and made poor by the unjust systems of America.
And I will vote for my conservative evangelical friends, who should know that God’s kingdom does not look like conservative judges or unchecked capitalism or petty religious liberty lawsuits or a church that aligns itself with empire in exchange for influence and power. God is sovereign whether Republicans or Democrats are in office.
America as a whole, Republican and Democrat, is not God’s kingdom. May we continuously repent for preaching American exceptionalism and proclaiming America as the land of God’s chosen people.
“May we continuously repent for preaching American exceptionalism and proclaiming America as the land of God’s chosen people.”
I know this is difficult for many to hear. I strongly encourage you to reflect deeply on your own convictions and seek out where they are rooted. Is it in love? Is it in fear? Is it in patriotism? Is it in Christ? Further, I implore you to seek out the voices of those who are outside of your own immediate circle. Listen to those whom Jesus listened to — the foreigner, the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the lost.
Whether or not it is deserved, America holds a place of extreme privilege in the world. The words and actions of the president of the United States have immediate and powerful global impact. How we as a nation wield or yield our privilege has consequences.
The world is watching us. How will you use your voice and your privilege?
Will Cumbia is field coordinator for the Virginia Baptist mission partnership focus:refugees in cooperation with the European Baptist Federation. He is based in Vienna, Austria, where he supports a congregation’s ministry of refugee integration. He is working toward the master of divinity degree online at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.