April 2017


Pastor’s Letter for April

Dear friends in Christ,
In recent months, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been addressing the related though distinct issues of refugees and migrants. This two-pronged issue was the focus of the annual ELCA Advocacy Convening in which bishops, other clergy, and ELCA members met in Washington, DC, for training, education, and a day of meeting with elected officials on Capitol Hill.

Speaking about the event in a Living Lutheran article, the Rev. Amy Reumann, director for ELCA Advocacy, said “As Lutherans, we affirm our faith is active in a love that calls for justice in the relationships and structures of society. When we speak out as the church, we are embodying the love of God by tending to the hurts or needs of our neighbors by speaking to
those with the power to enhance or to harm their well-being.”

There is so much going on in the world, and we know that it is impossible to address it all at once. Yet something about the displacement of people has captured the attention of people of faith.At the public meeting last month in support of Amherst declaring itself a Sanctuary city, I stood with the largest and most inclusive group of faith leaders I have seen come together on an issue since I came to Amherst six years ago.

It can be confusing to follow all the aspects of this issue. The concept of providing sanctuary means different things for towns or schools than it does for faith communities. (The former has to do with not seeking out immigration information from suspected undocumented immigrants in order to share it with immigration enforcement, the latter with advocating for and potentially providing physical shelter to undocumented immigrants.) There is also a strategy of the ELCA that is about working with migrant children and families who come with or without documentation, but who are given temporary stays while backlogged immigration courts consider their asylum petitions.

Separate but related is the issue of welcoming identified refugees, who are identified by international organizations as displaced peoples and go through a years-long vetting process before being given entry to the United States. For now, refugees are entering the country at a reduced rate, though the rapidly changing policies and orders have made this a difficult time for resettlement agencies. (The two largest resettlement agencies in the country are faith-based, Roman Catholic and Lutheran.) The images from Syria in the last two weeks have once again made more vivid for us this ongoing crisis.

What I think captures the attention of the faith community around this issue is how deeply it is rooted in our traditions. Over and over again in our scriptures, God calls God’s people to care for the stranger and the alien in their midst. There are +/- 138 times the word “alien” appears in the NRSV translation of the Bible (in modern speak we might say “migrant,” including both refugees and immigrants). The vast majority of those references either identify the experience of God’s people as strangers in a foreign land or call God’s people to welcome on equal footing the stranger in their midst. As people of faith we recognize the reality of national borders and legal processes, but above that we recognize all people bearing the image of God, people who are pleading for help.

The barring of refugees and the inhumane treatment of migrants (often without any form of due process) are a humanitarian crisis that we as citizens and as people of faith are called to confront. How we do so as individuals and as congregations and communities is a good question, and one that requires careful and thoughtful engagement. One action we’ve already
taken is to designate funds for local refugee resettlement (which has not yet been disbursed, as local agencies continue to wait for the anticipated refugees). Over the next weeks and months,our hope is to do that work of discernment, not just if and how to further engage this issue but about also how we engage social issues more broadly.

For now, we approach Holy Week in which we will retell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection – a story in which we find sanctuary, a story in which Christ becomes the one shut out and cut off, a story which breaks open for us God’s love welcoming us not as strangers but as children of God. And our prayer continues that all people would be given welcome, safety, and hope.

Pastor Steven

P.S. Here are some places where you can start to learn more: http://lirs.org