By Thomas Kemper*
Photo by Jessica Hargreaves
While the “R” in UMCOR stands for “relief,” it also points to “refugees.” Ministries with refugees have been central to our relief work throughout the 77 years since the agency’s founding in 1940. It is a priority today that sometimes collides with the policies of governments.
I use “refugees” in a generic sense: persons forced to flee their homes because of war, violence, pestilence, persecution, economic oppression, or natural disaster. The church typically uses “refugees” to mean displaced persons.
Concern for refugees was built into the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief (MCOR), the forerunner to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), by the global situation at the time of its organization and the heroic foresight of its primary promoter. Bishop Herbert Welch (1862-1969) proposed denominational assistance to people “without distinction to race, creed, or color” in a war-torn world. Though retired, the bishop was the MCOR chief executive for its first eight years.
The United Methodist response toward refugees is summed up by the biblical admonitions “to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2) and “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Refugees are neighbors in Christian eyes. For many years “Justice For Our Neighbors” was part of UMCOR, but in 2012 it became a separate entity owned and almost fully funded by UMCOR. The now National Justice For Our Neighbors is a local church-based legal services program for migrants dealing with the immigration system in the United States.
Particularly in international focus and debate today are the displacements of people by armed conflict in the Middle East and gang violence and economic factors in Central America. Economic deprivation can serve as effectively as violence to send people beyond their home communities and countries looking for some means of survival. Over the decades, the Middle East has produced vast number of refugees, including hundreds of thousands of Palestinians beginning in the mid-1940s, and today new waves of displaced people come from Iraq and Syria. Assistance for displaced Syrians and Iraqis is at the heart of much recent UMCOR work—assistance to those displaced both within and beyond their home borders.
IOCC team delivering school kits, hygiene kits, and supplies for babies at St Afram's Church
(Syriac Orthodox). Some of the crates were donated by UMCOR. Photo by Jessica Hargreaves
For many years, UMCOR was directly involved in refugee resettlement in the United States, work accomplished through congregations. With large financial support from UMCOR, this effort is now coordinated by the ecumenical Church World Service (CWS) organization, as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, resulted in a sharp cutback in refugee admissions.
I was among the executives of faith-based organizations appealing to the federal government to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. late during the Obama Administration. And I likewise publicly objected to even more stringent efforts by the new Trump Administration to ban or slow the entrance of refugees and to step up deportations. Particularly troubling is the effort to link immigrants to acts of terrorism and to specifically target persons coming from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Such policies reverberate with racism, xenophobia, and special privilege in a country where all persons except Native Americans come from immigrant roots—many as refugees.
The General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOR will continue ministries along the US-Mexican border, services to refugees in the Middle East, and advocacy for admission of Syrian and Muslim refugees to the U.S. We draw no distinction in humanitarian services based on race, creed or color.
I ask that the Trump Administration be guided in its immigration and refugee policy by international standards of decency, respect, and human rights stipulated by United Nations conventions and declarations.
And we will continue to reach out to strangers—our neighbors—as we have learned from Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:37-40).
*Thomas G. Kemper is the General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Winter 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.