I don't know if it registered on the Richter scale, but I think there was a small earthquake in Columbia, Maryland last night. At least, I felt the earth shake a little.
We hosted an event last night at our church for everyone who is interested in helping us resettle a refugee family in our community. We invited Lutheran Social Services (who contract with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to oversee refugee resettlement in our area) to send a couple of staff to give an overview of their "Good Neighbor" program and answer questions. We announced the event to our congregation and figured we'd host 30 or so.
But we are so excited about this project that we couldn't stop talking about it with other people we know. Some of those people are connected to other congregations in the area. They brought word of what we're doing back to their leadership or their Missions Boards and the excitement spread.
We planned for 30 last night, but 62 people showed up, including representatives from New Hope Lutheran Church, Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Bet Aviv, the Muslim Community Center, Dar Al-Taqua Islamic Center, and Sandy Spring Friends Meeting. Luckily, we baked a lot of brownies.
There was a real sense of excitement in the room before we even began. A few minutes after 7:00 pm I stood up and welcomed everyone to the event and to our community. "There are some prominent voices in our state and in our nation who are saying "NO!" to refugees," I told everyone. "But we feel compelled by God to respond to the desperate needs of millions of people in a different way. We want to say YES! We want to say WELCOME!" Everyone in the room shouted back, "WELCOME!" And we were off.
Don Link, the "Caller" of the Seeking Refuge Focus Group at our church spoke first. He told the group of his struggle over the last year as he learned about the deep suffering of immigrants fleeing the brutal war in Syria. The situation overwhelmed him--the magnitude of the problem and the intensely personal pain that came through photos and stories. But his faith won't let him shut down or walk away when he feels overwhelmed. Instead, he prayed and listened and in time, discerned that God was calling him to act.
In May, Don stood up in front of our congregation and read a short statement about his call. This kind of thing happens on a fairly regular basis at KC so we have a little ritual for the occasion. We put a stole on Don and prayed over him. And then we all considered how God might be calling us to respond to this crisis as well. Fifteen of us ended up joining Don's team and many others got involved with the first action, collecting materials for "Welcome Kits" that Lutheran Social Services distributes to the hundreds of refugee families they are resettling this year.
After we had been meeting for a couple of months, it became clear that we were ready for the next step: a "Level One" partnership with LSS, a one-year commitment to a refugee family that includes rent assistance, employment assistance, completely furnishing an apartment, providing help with clothing and food and transportation and all the other things a family might need.
I don't think I'll ever forget the moment we made that decision. We knew that it was a huge step for a small church like ours--we figured it would cost us at least $20,000. But when we said YES to that commitment, we didn't feel overwhelmed at the thought of all. Our YES released a kind of buzzing energy through our group. We felt it physically--we practically danced out of the room.
That energy was back last night. After Don spoke, our guests from Lutheran Social Service gave an overview of the program and did a great job answering our questions for about a half an hour. Then, Art Spilkia led us in a powerful song which has become a KC favorite: "I Refuse" by Josh Wilson.
I don't want to live like I don't care
I don't want to say another empty prayer
Oh I refuse to
Sit around and wait for someone else
To do what God has called me to do myself
Oh I could choose
Not to move
But I refuse
And then, Ann Ivester made her pitch. As we sit in our safe homes, we feel so disconnected from the stories and struggles of refugees on the other side of the world. We can't imagine what their lives are like. We have never faced the kinds of decisions they have had to make. But that sense of disconnection isn't really the whole truth. After all, every refugee wants his or her children to be safe from harm. We share this desire with the whole human family. So tonight, Ann said, when we take a step to help a refugee family, we draw a thread of connection between our lives and theirs. With this thread, we start re-weaving a fabric that has been torn, the fabric of human community.
And then we passed out pledge cards.
It didn't take long for people to fill them out--and they asked for more to take home to their congregations and friends. We collected the cards (and the checks that were attached to many of them), prayed over them and wrapped the night up with a rousing chorus of "This Land Is Your Land".
Don counted the checks and pledges as soon as he got home and sent this email to the group:
Great job tonight, everyone! God is good; God is here.
$4,825 checks in hand
$7,750 pledged (includes 1 month rent and $1,500 for mattresses)
Wow indeed. Back when I was in college, I took a class called "The Mystical Experience" and read works by the Desert Fathers and Theresa of Avila and many others. I was fascinated by what they saw and heard and felt. The power of Divine Presence! I so wished I could have even a taste of what they experienced. I wanted to know God first hand--not just read about God and talk about God and think about God. I had a sense that in order to know God like the mystics do, I would need to retreat to a mountain top or take a long, solo journey on foot.
Turns out I was wrong. I just needed to join a community that together says YES to God's call.
P.S. We still need to raise about $7,500 more to fully fund this project. Maybe you--like us--want to be a part of a positive response to the worldwide refugee crisis? Please shoot me an email for more info OR send a check to the Kittamaqundi Community Church with "Seeking Refuge" in the memo line. Our address is 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD 21044. Thanks!