It was fall 2015 when God called Rachel Betts to pay attention to current events. The Syrian refugee crisis was exploding, and Betts wanted to help somehow.
For years, her church, Durham's Church of the Good Shepherd, had been hosting "good neighbor" teams that sponsor refugees, so Betts and other concerned congregants formed a new one. In early 2016, they welcomed a small Syrian family: a mother, her twelve-year-old daughter, and the mother's sister.
Over the next year, the group walked through life with that family: helping them open bank accounts and fill out job applications; shuttling the girl, who had a blood disorder, to doctors' visits; being present during a bone marrow transplant that ultimately failed; attending the mosque prayer service after the girl died; and later, celebrating the mother's marriage to another Syrian refugee.
Not everyone at the Church of the Good Shepherd, which is theologically conservative and affiliated with the evangelical Presbyterian Church in America, was enthusiastic about the institution's refugee activities.
"I've had some interesting conversations with people in the church about it," says Betts. Some members are simply more conservative on immigration policy, and others are fearful about potential terrorist threats.
That's not surprising. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, whose push to keep undocumented immigrants and Muslims out of the country was a hallmark of his campaign and has been a centerpiece of his administration so far. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of white evangelicals approved of Trump's first executive order, which barred immigration from seven Muslim countries and halted the flow of refugees for 120 days. The numbers are presumably similar for the second executive order, which, like the first one, was halted by a federal judge last week, before it could take effect.
What those overwhelming proportions belie, of course, are not-so-tiny minorities who disagree with Trump's policies. A proxy war has been brewing among Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was vociferously anti-Trump (and, for that matter, anti-Hillary Clinton) during the campaign and came perilously close to losing his job.
Meanwhile, more than six thousand prominent pastors from around the country have signed a letter to Trump supporting the country's refugee resettlement program, saying that loving one's neighbor and welcoming the stranger are key tenets of Christianity.
Almost twenty of them came from North Carolina, including Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, part of the Southern Baptist Convention. Akin says he's fully behind Moore and believes the country has room for a "gracious and compassionate" immigration policy.
"This to me is one of the big humanitarian crises of our world, and this is where the church is called," says the Reverend Bill Biggers, pastor of Durham's Hope Valley Baptist Church and a signatory to the letter to Trump. Hope Valley Baptist recently converted a building on its property to serve as short-term housing for refugees, called Hope House; it's currently occupied by an African family.
The project wasn't without resistance and required careful finessing, months of prayer, and church-wide dialogue.
"There are certainly people in our congregation who are conflicted [about the house]," says Cara Bolton, a Hope Valley Baptist member who has largely led the house's renovation. "I've heard people say, 'We have people here who need help. Why aren't we helping them first?'
Corey Jackson, pastor of Cary's Trinity Park church—which he describes as "extremely conservative theologically"—has heard similar comments from church members. But he has no doubts about the church's activities with refugees, which have been a core component of the institution's ministry over the past four years.
"It's a total no-brainer from a Christian perspective to love refugees. When Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, that includes everyone," he says.
"We know what God's called us to do regarding refugees. We have this opportunity to show the gospel and show Christ's love," adds Lawrence Yoo, pastor of the Southern Baptist-affiliated Waypoint Church in Durham. Just about every church member is part of a team sponsoring refugee families, and several have elected to live "in community" in apartment complexes crowded with refugees.
According to Adam Clark, director of the Durham branch of World Relief—one of the four resettlement agencies working in North Carolina—about 230 churches from across the theological spectrum partner with his office. That's impressive for a medium-size program; in fact, he says, his office garners the most volunteers of any of World Relief's offices across the country.
"It's a real bragging point," he says.
Volunteers who work with World Relief and similar agencies learn about the detailed, two-years-plus vetting process that all refugees to the U.S. go through and the subsequently tiny chance a terrorist will slip through the cracks. That's one reason they tend to support the programs and oppose Trump's refugee restrictions, no matter how closely their views might otherwise align with political conservatism.
But refugees are also a more politically palatable population than, say, undocumented immigrants. After all, they're lawfully here.
"In my experience, Christians are more ready and willing to help refugees because they come here legally, versus other immigrants who many perceive as not having 'gotten in line,'" says Jennie Belle, program associate for farmworker and immigrant rights at the N.C. Council of Churches.
Indeed, many refugees don't want to come to the United States; they simply have to, as a result of suffering and hardship in their home countries.
World Relief and affiliated groups are worried, though. The number of refugees coming into this country has slowed to a trickle. Even though Trump's executive orders were struck down, he had the authority to reduce the annual cap on refugees from 110,000 under President Obama last year to 50,000 this year—and the majority of those have already arrived. That diminished number throws both the agencies and the volunteers into uncertainty.
Marc and Kim Wyatt, Raleigh-based volunteers with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, ran Welcome House, a residence providing short-term housing for refugees that was the inspiration for Hope House as well as several other similar facilities across the state. After hosting almost 150 people over the course of fifteen months, they had to close at the end of February because of a lack of arrivals. What's ironic, they say, is that public support for their work has never been greater—because of outrage over Trump's actions.
"There's a tremendous interest and enthusiasm to help from the community—not just the faith community," says Marc Wyatt. "People here are concerned. For us, this is one of the most opportune times for the church to be engaged with the community." But he's worried because there aren't many new refugees coming right now. "In four months, say, if things get going, will interest and the desire to help return? We're prayerful that the enthusiasm now won't be squashed by the delay of new arrivals."
In the meantime, the couple is recommending that potential volunteers get to know the area's refugee community and the agencies that serve it. There's plenty of need among existing refugees for mentors, ESL tutors, and after-school teachers. That recommendation goes for anyone, not just those outraged about the current political climate. As just about all of the pastors and church members involved with refugees would agree, the best way to overcome anxiety toward outsiders is simply to get to know them.
That's been Rachel Betts's experience during her time sponsoring the Syrian family.
"I think when you get down to it, even people who might be more conservative-minded as far as immigration policy goes, or more fearful about potential terrorists—when you say we need a bicycle for a twelve-year-old who came from Syria, they say, 'We have one. Have mine," she says. "I think it goes back to that fear of the unknown, but when people have the opportunity to see a person and see a need, they're going to step up."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blessed Are The Merciful"