‘The if was never a question’: Congregations weigh options for serving Afghan refugees

Wisconsin Conference congregations continue to take concrete steps to welcome newly arrived Afghan refugees to the Badger State, but pastors say their churches also are in a period of discernment as they figure out exactly how God is calling them to help.

Church members continue to gather donations of winter coats, boots and shoes, hats and scarves, soccer balls and yoga mats for prayer. And leaders of congregations are beginning to think through ways to care for the spiritual needs of the mostly-Muslim Afghans.

Redeemer UCC in Sussex put a fresh spin on a Halloween tradition during worship on Oct. 31. “The sermon will be an extended children’s time rather than a traditional sermon,” said the Rev. Julie Eklund, Redeemer’s pastor, speaking a few days before the event. “We’ll have children trick-or-treat in the congregation for money for refugee relief.”

Meanwhile, each Sunday an intergenerational mission team at Redeemer is churning out two “tie blankets” – so called because they consist of two pieces of fleece, tied together. The blankets are donated to refugee relief.

In Wausau, which is expecting roughly 100 Afghan refugees, the Rev. Julie Goranson, pastor of Grace UCC, says the church council was given less than 24 hours to make a commitment to help. “What was particularly heartwarming as a pastor was not if but how we were going to help,” she said. “The if was never the question. That was God calling to us.” The Ethiopian Community Development Council, one of nine national resettlement agencies funded by the State Department, will coordinate the Wausau effort.

“Because we’ve resettled so many Hmong refugees over the years, ECDC thought Wausau was empowered to help Afghan refugees, too,” Goranson said. She said her 175-member congregation has just begun to consider the resources it has to offer and whether it makes more sense to partner with other groups or to sponsor a family on its own.

The Rev. Dave Ostendorf, minister for community and outreach at First Congregational UCC in River Falls, said the faithful must deal graciously with the cultural issues that will arise in resettling large numbers of Muslim newcomers.

“Communities have to be open to families and people of this faith,” Ostendorf said, noting that Muslims often face discrimination. “The Christian community needs to be amazingly open to receive people of Islam. It’s just incumbent upon us as Christians to be welcoming . . . . We’re living in a multifaith world like nothing in our lifetimes.”

Ostendorf, whose community has experience resettling Vietnamese refugees and a Guatemalan family, said it’s important for congregations to take the time to plan their response.

“This is a long-term process,” he said. “This is not something we’re going to resolve in the next few weeks or months. Resettlement takes a long time. It requires a lot of investment of time, energy, faithfulness and money.”

Goranson put it this way: “If we discern well, we lay the foundation for a successful outcome. If we skip that discernment step we could be stepping into something that’s not what God’s calling us to do, and a family’s welfare is at stake. That’s not done lightly or easily or quickly.”

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