The Syrian refugee crisis happening thousands of miles away from Florida might soon come closer to home as the federal government seeks to relocate 10,000 Syrian refugees, with a couple hundred coming to the Sunshine State in 2016.
There are 20 million refugees in the world, with almost 49,000 coming to Florida last year, according to data from World Relief and the Florida Department of Children and Families. About 100 of them were Syrian.
This data represents a special opportunity for Florida Baptists to reach a group of people they would otherwise not have the chance to encounter.
But how can Baptist churches across the state interact and share the gospel with a group of people that have a significantly different worldview?
First of all, says Rick Wheeler, lead missional strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association (JBA), get to know a Syrian refugee.
“If you’ve ever met a refugee, you’re dealing with a person who’s lost everything. And they come to our airports, and they have a white plastic bag, and everything they own is in there,” he said.
Some perspectives on the Syrian refugee crisis say that allowing Syrian refugees into the country poses a threat to national security.
A LifeWay Research telephone survey of 1,000 protestant senior pastors found that 44 percent agree that their church has a sense of fear about refugees coming to the United States.
Wheeler says that politicians and media sound bites make it seem like it’s an either/or dilemma. Either help the refugee or risk national security. When in fact, he says, Americans can do both.
As a sanctuary city designated by the state government, Jacksonville has seen its share of refugees, which is why, says Wheeler, most of the JBA churches are accustomed to interacting with them.
“The people that I deal with are not military people. They are women, widows, children, men. They are in despair,” he said.
Safaa and Elham Hillawi fled their hometown in Iraq due to religious persecution.
Since arriving in Jacksonville eight years ago, the couple has been working to reach other refugees, most of whom are Muslim.
Like in Iraq, Elham says the way they do church here is house churches. After the war in Iraq it became dangerous for Christians to meet in groups larger than 20, and because their church was very large they had to break up into small groups that met throughout the city of Baghdad.
In Jacksonville, they use a similar approach to which refugees have responded well.
She says trust is a challenge for ministering to Muslim refugees.
“Some of the families are afraid of the Muslim families because they feel they cannot trust them, even the ones that say they are Christians have to be vetted,” she said.
Her advice to Southern Baptist churches wanting to reach out to Syrian refugees in their communities – many of whom might be Muslim – is to become familiarized with the Quran.
Many Muslims think the person reaching out to them doesn’t understand their religion or culture, she said. If so, they will not feel compelled to listen to what a Christian is sharing.
Sometimes churches believe giving a refugee family money or a car is a big help, but she says churches should give “food, take them to the hospital if they need it, show them the love, tell them about Jesus. That is better than giving them something big.”
Some churches may not have refugees nearby, but they still can reach out to Syrians who are stuck in other countries as they flee the violence in theirs.
David Trivette, missions minister at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, leads the church’s efforts in helping Syrian refugees internationally.
Church at the Mall has partnered with Agora Church – a church plant in Budapest, Hungary – to help the Syrian refugees arriving daily by train.
David Hamar, pastor of Agora Church, and International Mission Board missionaries Trey and Denise Shaw and Monte and April Baker are leading the ground-floor efforts to meet Syrian families at the train stations, share the gospel with them, supply their physical needs and keep them company as they sort out their next step.
“Led by WMU and other mission-minded folks within our church, a spaghetti luncheon took place to raise support and awareness of how we can pray for our ministry partners as they minister to the Syrian refugees,” said Trivette in an email.
“We also sent a team from Church at the Mall during Thanksgiving to show encouragement to our ministry partners and Agora Church, [which] has opened [its] doors to many immigrants as they acclimate into the Hungarian culture.”
In an email to Trivette, Monte Baker says that some of the ways they’ve been able to help Syrian refugees is by taking church families to meet the refugees at the train stations and letting the kids play together. At another train station, mission teams were able to help prepare lunch for approximately 400 Syrians who arrived that day. He also was able to obtain permission from the Hungarian government to enter the refugee camps to share the gospel. Baker also shared that the biggest need among the refugees arriving in Hungary is shoes.
“Overall, I find the refugees hospitable, kind, intelligent and looking for a better life, a life without fear and a chance to work and provide a future for their families,” wrote Baker. “I have not encountered any hostility whatsoever, but instead people open to relationships.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness at gofbw.com, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention. Keila Diaz is a reporter for the Florida Baptist Witness.)