In a recent blog entry posted to NACSW’s Shared Grace entitled “Who Is My Neighbor?”, long-standing member Julia Pizzuto-Pomaco exhorted NACSW members and friends to take time to engage in conversations and build friendships with people from different faith traditions. She suggested that doing so “will positively impact our social work practice and our personal lives, and lead to the betterment of society” (http://www.nacsw.org/who-is-my-neighbor/).
One of these reasons Julia’s blog resonated with me is because of an amazing recent experience I’ve had working with an interfaith group which was formed to help resettle refuge families in my community in Connecticut. It all started when several of us in my church wondered together about how we might become involved in refugee resettlement. After a lot of soul searching, we had to conclude (sadly) that we just didn’t have a sufficient number of people in our congregation who were able to commit to launching a refugee ministry. Just as we were about to give up on this idea, we discovered that another church in our area had also been exploring refugee resettlement, but had come to the same conclusion that they were just too small and under-resourced to resettle a refugee family on their own. So our two churches decided to meet to see what might be possible if we pooled our resources.
As we were meeting, it dawned on us that there might well be other faith communities in our area also interested in refugee resettlement, and so we reached out to folks we knew from other congregations represented in our town’s interfaith clergy group (a group which, incidentally, had become quite cohesive following the tragic shooting of 26 children and teachers in Sandy Hook Elementary School in our town in 2014). We were pleasantly surprised to discover how many faith communities wanted “in!”
Over a period of several months, our group, which we named the Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement (IPRR – http://www.iprefugeer.org/), grew to include representatives of six diverse area faith communities: the Al Hedaya Muslim Community and Mosque; the Baha’i faith community of Newtown; Congregation Adath Israel; Newtown Congregational Church; the Newtown Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; and Trinity Episcopal Church. To answer the question of what our group was all about, we developed the following mission statement: We are people from several local congregations who have come together to live out our faith by helping a refugee family begin a new life, regain hope, and contribute to the vitality of the greater Newtown community.
Our interfaith group’s first step was to partner with an organization in Connecticut named Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, which is actually a spin-off of a refugee services committee originally created by the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. This organization is one of the main organizations in Connecticut that acts as a gatekeeper of refugee services in our state, working directly with the US government to vet and prepare selected refugee families before they get to the US – after which it often becomes the responsibility of community groups like IPRR to work directly with the refugee family. Community groups like IPRR focus on tasks such as: securing affordable housing; collecting donated furniture, clothes, and other household items; helping refugees access public benefits (health insurance, food stamps and cash assistance); enrolling children in school; helping parents find jobs, raising funds – and, as we learned, much more!
As our interfaith group began working with a Congolese family of six (that had been living in a refugee camp in Tanzania for more than 15 years), we discovered that there were important benefits associated with being a group representing several congregations. First of all, raising $10,000, soliciting donations for household goods and furniture, and recruiting the needed 50-60 volunteers actually came relatively easily when we pooled the resources of our 6 faith communities. But equally important, we found that we really, really enjoyed getting to know each other and working together to overcome the knotty challenges and obstacles that are inherent in refugee resettlement work. The synergy that our group developed was rich and powerful. We found that previously-held stereotypes about each other/each other’s faith traditions were, well, just that – stereotypes. We also learned about how faith from different religious traditions empowered and inspired its followers to work with refugees.
Many in our local community have recognized and expressed their support for the interfaith composition of our group. One local newspaper, the Danbury News Times, remarked that “In Newtown, Jews, Muslims, Christians and members of other faith communities have formed The Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Settlement.” Another local newspaper, the Newtown Bee, published an articles which stated, “. . . while the group was born by members of Trinity <Episcopal Church> and NCC <Newtown Congregational Church> — and has also gained representatives from Al Hedaya Islamic Center, Baha’i Community, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — the project is open to anyone who wants to participate.” Yet one more local newspaper, the Danbury Local Voice, noted that “A father and mother who fled the war-torn Congo over 16 years ago, escaping to a refugee camp in Tanzania, are now happily settled in Danbury with their four children, partially thanks to the work of the newly formed Newtown Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement (IPRR). They arrived in November with the help of congregants from IPRR’s diverse group of faith communities in Newtown and others.” It was remarkable that three local newspapers thought our work with the refugee family was of sufficient interest that they tasked reporters from their staff to write articles about this project. It was equally remarkable that all three articles chose to highlight that IPRR is an interfaith group, a fact that has resonated deeply with many in our community.
Some Christian friends have asked me: did partnering with members of other religious traditions make it necessary to downplay my Christian identity in my work with this group? Did I have to muffle my Christian voice as a compromise to working cohesively with others from different religious backgrounds? I give a great deal of credit to this group that this was not the case at all. In fact, several of us in the group were able to share openly what our faith teaches about working with refugees and other vulnerable persons. For example, I felt free to share that for me, participating in this work provided an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ in our community, to be faithful to God’s call to show compassion for those who have had no choice but to leave their countries due to war, persecution, or threats of violence – and then to share Scripture that undergirds this belief (my Jewish friends in particular appreciated these passages!):
The LORD your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 CEB).
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV).
After IPRR had been together for almost a year, one of our members suggested that we take turns attending each other’s worship services as a way of learning more about the religious traditions of the various faith communities from which we came. The Al Hedaya Muslim Community and Mosque in particular expressed that our group members attending one of their services represented an important act of solidarity that they greatly appreciated during a time when their faith community was experiencing considerable animosity from the larger society.
So far our inter-faith group has only worked with this one Congolese refugee family that arrived in the US in November of 2016. Through the combined efforts of dozens of dedicated and caring volunteers from our six faith communities (joined by others from the local community), the family made steady progress integrating into their new home in the face of no small number of knotty challenges and obstacles. Then after living in our community for only 6 months, the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan to live with the father’s cousin and to be part of a larger Congolese community there. It was not easy saying our goodbyes, and we were sad to see our new friends go, but our interfaith group felt no less committed to resettlement work – and to each other – upon their leaving. We are grateful for the many ways working together with this family enriched our lives, and how much we learned from each other at many levels. So much so, in fact, that IPRR is in the process of preparing to support a second refugee family. We are already looking forward to working together again, hopefully early in 2018!
Rick Chamiec-Case is the executive director of NACSW, and has been a member of NACSW since the 1980s. Rick has been a social work administrator for many years, after beginning his social work career working with people with developmental disabilities.