Foreign Missions In The U.S.

For the church, Kamsan and the other 750,000 refugees who have relocated in the United States over the past decade are foreign missions incarnate. Surprising numbers of them have responded to the gospel. Their ethnic churches thrive nationwide, and clusters of former refugees worship in U.S. churches of all denominations. Often it is a Christian who feeds them in camps overseas, a Christian who greets their arrival here, and a Christian family who helps them settle into an American way of life.

Don Bjork directs refugee services for World Relief, the National Association of Evangelical’s relief, development, and refugee assistance agency. He considers America’s refugee population “one of the most significant home missions efforts ever,” and says, “we’re just beginning to sense the magnitude of it.”

An independent team of sociologists who studied some of the 40,000 refugees World Relief has settled since 1979 found that fully 25 percent of them said they had become Christians. Skeptics chalk up a portion of that response to their eagerness to please, or to say the right thing. Certainly some refugees are opportunists, thinking a Christian testimony is an instant ticket to American jobs and success.

But a substantial, real commitment among many is undeniable, and some U.S. churches and denominations have made them a top ministry priority. Often it is an organized outgrowth of foreign missions involvement. Others simply find they are equipped to help refugees who settle in their midst.

The number of refugees allowed in has declined steadily from its 1981 peak of 217,000—the height of the “boat people’s” exodus from Southeast Asia. This year the government set a ceiling of 72,000, its lowest level in ten years. It is likely that fewer than 65,000 refugees will be admitted. This is a fraction—about 5 percent—of total immigration into this country.

Alliance Churches Lead The Way

Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) churches have been in the forefront of resettlement efforts ever since the fall of Vietnam in 1975. Gene Hall, the denomination’s assistant director of specialized ministries, said the church’s extensive missionary presence in Southeast Asia energized U.S. congregations.

“We’ve allowed the Vietnamese to develop their own conference of churches within the Alliance structure,” Hall said. There are 22 of these, concentrated in California and the Midwest. An additional 66 ethnic churches have been planted by the CMA’s 1,500 U.S. congregations.

Article continues below

Their first Vietnamese church sprouted in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Rosemont Alliance Church suddenly found itself resettling more than 70 families in the spring of 1975. “We weren’t exactly sure what we were getting into,” former pastor H. B. Leastman recalls. But opportunities to help sparked new vigor in his congregation. “We had our highest attendance ever during those summer months because people gave up their vacations and stayed around to do all they could to make resettlement work.”

Leastman found himself thrust into the role of “benevolent dictator,” because so large a group came all at once. “They were a militarized people who had been told what to do, not asked. So I gave orders. We didn’t ask them if they wanted to take English as a second language; we told them when the bus would pick them up. They responded beautifully.”

Some inevitable gaffes occurred. Leastman, who knew no Vietnamese, began pronouncing the name of a Vietnamese pastor with a typically American inflection. Several months went by before a translator took him aside and explained that his rendering of the name changed its meaning to “cow manure.”

Separate Or Single Congregations

There is no single, fail-safe way for a church to embark on a cross-cultural ministry of this sort. Some refugees want a clean break with their unhappy past and are comfortable in an American congregation. Others—older adults and people struggling to learn English—prefer an ethnic service of their own. Either way, pastors who have ministered to refugees agree it is essential to encourage more mature Christians in their midst to assume spiritural leadership.

At Calvary Baptist Church in Elgin, Illinois, the Rev. Tim Wills found this to be true even though it seemed to thwart the ideal of a unified congregation. “Our intention was to totally integrate, and it still is. The desire of our hearts is one church worshiping together. But for now, we have to develop leadership in their language because the barrier is too great.”

Calvary’s 20 Laotians and 15 Cambodians join in the regular Sunday morning service and then meet on their own. One mature Christian from each group meets for weekly training and discipling with Wills or another church leader. A third group of 15 Ethiopian refugees has been most open to the gospel.

In Falls Church, Virginia, Columbia Baptist Church (SBC) began offering English classes for neighboring refugees and immigrants. Dan Watkins, minister of education at Columbia, said, “If you start ministering to one family, they invite their friends, and pretty soon you have a group.” As a result, Columbia has two ethnic congregations within its larger church family: 100 Koreans and 50 Hispanics. “They are part of the church, but their need is to worship in the other language,” Watkins said.

Article continues below

He is particularly alert to avoid manipulating foreign nationals. “We are very careful not to give them a bowl of soup and then say, ‘Okay, now you’ve got to hear the gospel.’ We meet needs with no obligation because that’s the way we feel the Lord would do it. You often hear them say, ‘Now that I’m an American, I want to have an American religion.’ That element is always there, so we are very cautious.”

Mormons Outwork Christians

The Mormon church has made tremendous progress in incorporating refugees into its congregational life, and that has galvanized some previously sluggish evangelical churches into action. Some Mormon churches obtain computer printouts of new arrivals and demonstrate a genuine and irresistible level of friendship. There are very few refugees who are able to distinguish ways in which Mormon doctrine differs from orthodox Christianity.

“They’re going to go where the love is,” Greg Butler says. He leads the Bible study in Arlington, Virginia, that Kamsan attends, and he has observed firsthand the phenomenal attraction of Mormons in the Washington, D.C., area: “I saw a group of Mormon businessmen playing volleyball with the Cambodian kids and taking them out for ice cream.” In contrast, he finds apathy among many evangelicals. “We just are not reaching out the way we should. We’d rather turn the task over to some relief agency.”

Pat Pearson, with World Relief in Washington, D.C., spent her Sundays visiting Mormon services one summer, and their phenomenal outreach to refugees launched her into action. Equipped with her Betamax video recorder and a tape of the movie Jesus—produced in Khmer by Campus Crusade for Christ—she visits refugee families who have shown an interest in Christianity.

Often, this familiar-sounding presentation of a new set of beliefs helps heal family divisions. Pearson met with one mother who was perplexed over her son’s conversion to Christianity in a refugee camp. After seeing Jesus, the mother said she understood for the first time what the gospel meant. “Now I want to ask Jesus into my heart,” she told Pearson.

Christianity Versus Buddhism

Pearson’s work among refugees has provided unusual insight into a spiritual crisis of enormous magnitude. “These people had their Buddhism ripped out from under them,” she says. “Their whole world view of good and evil made no sense in the face of their enormous national tragedy.”

Article continues below

Communist leader Pol Pot, bent on eliminating the middle class and creating a totally agrarian society, brought mass murder to Cambodia’s peaceful people in 1975. Between two and three million people were killed systematically or died from disease and malnutrition. Vietnamese invaders deposed Pol Pot in 1979, and their fierce reign still spurs a steady exodus of terrified families fleeing famine and civil war.

Their Buddhist beliefs centered on attaining merit by works, and by and large they assumed that good things happen to good people. After escaping from a Cambodian nightmare, Pearson says, “the idea of the sinful nature of man made sense to them. Buddhism suits tranquil people in peaceful circumstances, but they seem to know deep down that it doesn’t do the job. What about human failure? Only Christianity answers that. And they saw the depths of human evil in Cambodia.”

Sometimes Pearson is amazed at the ways small deeds can evoke a profound response. She arranged to have beds delivered to the family of Ho Nhek just after they arrived from Cambodia. Several weeks later, she discovered Ho was struggling to understand the differences among various church groups in America. Torn between a local non-Christian group and Pearson’s Episcopal church, he told her, “Whenever I go to sleep on my bed I think your God must be number one, because your church helped me first.”

To Proselytize Or Not

Usually a church or family within a church sponsors the arriving refugee. Matching up willing Americans with dependent newcomers is the task of about a dozen private, voluntary agencies under contract with the U.S. State Department. About half of these are church related, involving Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, and the National Council of Churches (through Church World Service). Groups with religious affiliations handle 70 percent of the actual case load.

Placement with evangelical sponsors occurs most often through World Relief. These public-private efforts have raised no constitutional concerns about government promoting religion. A State Department official said, “Nothing in the contract says ‘Thou shalt not proselytize,’ but that is understood at the top levels of the State Department and the agencies.”

At World Relief, this is viewed as a plus, not a hindrance. Alec Hill, World Relief regional director in Seattle, explains, “We shouldn’t be doing the things the church does anyway. If our hands are tied evangelistically, that’s okay. It forces us in the direction of mobilizing the church.”

Article continues below

The government’s role includes setting limits on the number of refugees allowed in and selecting eligible refugees from among the multitudes in camps worldwide. Chances of resettlement in the United States increase dramatically if a refugee can prove he has a relative here already. Once they arrive, the Department of Health and Human Services provides a grant of several hundred dollars for each newcomer, and the State Department monitors how well sponsorship is working.

Surprises And Frustrations Of Sponsorship

Often the sponsor bumps up against unexpected frustrations. One Chicago sponsor was dismayed to discover an infestation of cockroaches left behind by Afghan refugees. Cuban refugees moved out of their sponsor’s home abruptly, taking along all the sponsor’s furniture. And Vietnamese families frequently move without warning to California, to join relatives there.

When that happened twice at Columbia Baptist in Falls Church, Virginia, the church opted out of sponsorship as a ministry. Watkins blames the difficulties on circumstances that left Vietnam’s first wave of refugees traumatized and confused. “There they were upper-class people with servants. All of a sudden, they found themselves at the low end of society having to beg for help.” Often they came with exaggerated visions of instant American prosperity, and struggled hard with the realities of a competitive job market and housing discrimination.

Disillusionment among sponsors has made resettlement efforts tougher through the years. George Wadsworth, WRC regional director in Chicago, says, “The mystique and the media coverage are gone. The sponsors we get are the ones we find.” In areas where many immigrants settle, some churches resist a cross-cultural ministry.

The refugee ministry at Calvary Baptist Church in Elgin, Illinois, began with one couple, Ed and Phyllis Williams, who have discovered that some refugee families are abandoned by their assigned sponsors. Pastor Tim Wills believes this happens because some churches vote to start a refugee outreach with no idea of what is involved. “If the family comes with bugs, tuberculosis, venereal disease, or three wives, what are you going to do?” he asks. Apparently some sponsors who are simply overwhelmed by grim realities introduce their charges to other refugees, and then leave them to fend for themselves.

Article continues below
Successful Assimilation

Refugees frequently bear the brunt of unjustified stereotypes picturing them as unwashed hordes or hopeless welfare dependents. But several reliable studies show that through the years, refugees have unexpectedly buoyed the economy by taking jobs few others want and achieving a remarkable degree of independence. But newly arriving refugees from Indochina and rural Central America tend to be less literate and not as employable as their early-arriving counterparts. They are more likely to need sustained assistance.

A survey by Church World Service found “no evidence of any significant long-term welfare dependence among refugees” despite the recession and high jobless rate of the past three years. Dale S. deHaan, program director for CWS and a former United Nations offical, said, “The basic partnership among refugee families, the private sector, and the government is working today as it has for nearly a generation. This partnership is accomplishing its humanitaran goals and it deserves the continuing support of all concerned.”

Who Can And Cannot Come

However, controversy about restricting the flow has simmered steadily in Washington, and a reluctant consensus has developed that the United States cannot open its arms as widely as many would like. This is partly due to a grim recognition that political circumstances causing displacement are not going to disappear overnight. Chronic international unrest, and fears that unrestrained admission may stimulate more people to flee lead policy strategists to counsel careful scrutiny of applicants overseas.

This approach began in 1980, when Congress officially defined refugees as people unwilling or unable to return to their homeland due to a reasonable fear of political, racial, or religious persecution. Previously, refugees were identified informally in terms of people fleeing communism.

The 1980 definition was welcomed by just about everyone involved, but it led to a bottleneck in processing applicants in refugee camps. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials began tediously reviewing refugees case by case. They began to suspect that some were “economic migrants”—people not really threatened by persecution, but simply wanting a new chance to thrive.

This is extremely disturbing to some voluntary agency representatives, who have told Congress it presents to the world “a refugee policy in disarray.” At the same time the U.S. is screening out some refugees, it is urging other nations to accept more refugees. Sending an uncertain signal abroad harms U.S. credibility, they say.

Article continues below
From Boat People To Feet People

The advent of the “feet people”—undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America—complicates policy making further. Already this problem is sowing seeds of division between churches willing to shelter them and others unwilling to break the law (CT, March 16, 1984, p. 34).

World Relief’s Bjork estimates that 1.1 million cross the southern border furtively each year, and 600,000 stay for good. Their presence confronts the church with an insistent ethical dilemma, Bjork believes, and in meeting with mainline Protestant and Catholic relief officials, he said, “I have discovered to my chagrin that across the board they have done a lot more thinking than we [evangelicals] have.”

The need for churches to continue resettling refugees, and perhaps sheltering undocumented aliens, does not promise to diminish. Refugee camps in Southeast Asia still hold 200,000 people who are anxious to settle permanently in a peaceful land. Their plight deeply touched Bjork during recent visits to Asia where, in Hong Kong’s Jubilee Camp, he found refugees piled three high in bunks in tiny cubicles, “like tiger cages.”

More rigorous requirements for admission and lower numerical quotas portend long days of bitter disappointment for the Kamsans who may never see their prayers answered. As long as nations are split along ideological borders, and people are marooned by international politics, ethnic ministry probably will remain a permanent fixture of American church life.

Congregations and pastors who have made it work view it as anything but a burden. For some, seeing Kamsan lead a roomful of Cambodians in “Sing Alleluia to the Lord” in Khmer is more than enough reward.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.