September 18, 2017: “Mission in an Era of Migrants and Refugees” was the focus of the annual meeting of the International Fellowship of Adventist Mission Studies last week (September 13-17) at Andrews University (AU). This is the academic organization of Adventists who teach missiology and have executive responsibilities in missionary organizations around the world.
When the theme was selected more than 18 months ago, the planners did not know how critical the topic would become. “We had no idea it would resonate so well,” explained Glenn Russell, assistant professor of religion at AU and a member of the planning committee. “We had a burden for it, and we were hoping that we could have others think about it. As it went forward, we realized how many others were doing the work. It was very inspiring to see.”
The four-day conference focused intensively on the Church’s mission and mandate to “welcome the stranger.” Attendees were first educated on basic terminology as well as the current world plight of refugees and migrants.
A refugee, as defined by international law, is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence” and “has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). In contrast, migrants “choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.”
Plenary speaker Kristine Van Noord, program manager at Bethany Christian Services, explained that the world is now facing its worst migration crisis since World War II. Altogether, taking into account both refugees and migrants, one out of every 122 human beings currently lives outside of the land of their birth, reports UNHCR. At the same time, opportunities for relocation are becoming more and more limited.
Equipped with an understanding of the current situation faced by the immigrants of the world, attendees were then challenged by a deep exploration of Scripture, concentrating on the heart of God in relation to the foreigner. “The strong biblical base has been brought out over and over again for this work,” Russell commented. “I was so impressed at how many times God commands how you treat the immigrant and the alien. This isn’t some optional thing for us to do, if we feel like it or when we feel generous.”
Many participants said the highlight of the conference was the Sabbath morning presentation by Pastor Dean Coridan, president of the Adventist denomination’s Iowa-Missouri Conference. He challenged the Church to welcome the stranger in its midst with unbounded generosity, to see our neighbor as any person who needs us. In this way, the migrants of the world will know that “the Church hasn’t forgotten them,” and in turn, that God has not turned his back on them.
Another main focus of the event was the study of how migration has historically been a rich source for the transmission of the gospel message to the world. Terri Saelee, coordinator of Adventist Refugee and Immigrant Ministries for the denomination’s North American Division, pointed to Ellen White’s challenge: “If we were quick in discerning the opening providences of God, we should be able to see in the multiplying opportunities to reach many foreigners in America a divinely appointed means of rapidly extending the third angel’s message into all the nations of the earth. God in his providence has brought men to our doors and thrust them, as it were, into our arms, that they might learn the truth, and be qualified to do a work we could not do in getting the light before men of other tongues.” (Evangelism, p. 570) Saelee’s ministry has been instrumental in planting churches among refugee populations and providing access to Adventist education for refugee youth in Canada and the United States.
Attendees were inspired by the steps being taken by a variety of church ministries in service to migrants and refugees. Jony Hajaj, a Doctor of Missiology candidate at AU and presenter for a breakout session, noted, “Now the church is moving to focus on refugees. I was so impressed to see that we are really now starting to move toward that. And that is something that should have happened a long time ago.”
Morning and evening plenary sessions were supplemented by breakout sessions divided into seven tracks: Hispanic Migrant Issues, Reaching Refugee Language Groups, Refugee Ministries among Muslims, Biblical Theological Foundations, House Churches, Whole Person Care, and Discipling in the World of Migrants.
Participants found these small group sessions to be practical and instructive. Hajaj explained, “Whenever you sit in these kinds of meetings where you have the right to ask questions, I believe people learn more. When they come with their questions, there is interaction. And I believe this is the best way of doing it. These workshops make a big difference.”
While previous missions conferences have primarily involved the AU departments of missions, theology and religion, there was an intentional effort to involve other departments on campus in the planning and implementation of this event, most notably the addition of the social work department. The breakout track devoted to Whole Person Care was a joint effort by students in the Master of Divinity/Master of Social Work dual degree program. Attendees were trained on how to advocate for immigrants in the community and guide them toward important community resources. Presenters also introduced the concrete needs that many immigrants have, including a lack of mental health support. This collaboration between departments provided attendees with an understanding of the importance of meeting felt needs before sharing doctrine.
The conference was jointly sponsored by the AU seminary department of world mission, the Lake Union Conference, the NAD Evangelism Institute (NADEI), and NAD Adventist Refugee and Immigrant Ministries. Plenary speakers also included: M. Daniel Carroll, Blanchard chair in Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School and author of Christians at the Border; Cristian Dumitrescu, associate editor of Journal of Adventist Mission Studies; Scott Griswold, director of Reach the World Next Door; Pastor Will James, Paradise Valley Adventist Church in San Diego, California; Dr. Sung Kwon, national director of Adventist Community Services; Erick Mendieta, assistant professor at Antillean Adventist University; Ricardo Palacios, ministry initiatives director and Africa field director for Adventist Frontier Missions; Gabriela Phillips, coordinator of Adventist Muslim Relations for the NAD; and Pastor Homer Trecartin, director of the General Conference Global Mission Study Centers.
A portion of the breakout sessions, as well as each plenary session, was dedicated to the telling of immigrant stories by refugees and migrants themselves. These accounts brought an authenticity to the goals and purpose of the conference. Included among the presenters was noted violinist Mariela Shaker, who shared the story of her miraculous escape from Syria and her opportunity to study music in the United States.
While education and networking were important goals of the conference, a hands-on opportunity to serve refugee youth was also provided. In a combined effort between conference attendees, AU students, and youth from Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus, 100 backpacks full of school supplies, hygiene kits, and blankets were assembled, and these “Promise Bags” will be shipped to refugee camps in Lebanon through the ministry of World Vision.
As a final act, the entire group present voted this official statement: “The conference participants share the deep conviction that ministry to refugees and immigrants is a core element of the church’s mission. We believe that ministry among refugees needs to be a part of local churches’ commitment to missions. Therefore, we recommend appropriate action to enhance Adventist cooperation with other agencies and to develop refugee and immigrant ministries within the church organization.”
While there is talk of a series of articles or a book to come out of the conference, video recordings of all plenary sessions are currently available here.
Materials and recordings from the conference will also be transferred to the online Adventist Learning Community, making the information available to the wider church.
For those looking for basic first steps for immigrant ministry, Ingrid Slikkers, assistant professor of social work at AU and a breakout session presenter, recommended looking first to see if your local church already has a ministry. She adds, “Check with your conference because it could be that your conference is doing something in another city that you’re not aware of, and then you could join a ministry” already in place. If not, look for other local organizations that are busy at work serving refugees and migrants. “It’s easy enough to Google refugee services or refugee foster care in your city or state,” she suggested.
Saelee echoed the hope of multiple participants that this event would bring greater fervor for ministry to migrants and refugees. She would like participants to return home “with a sense of how central reaching refugees and immigrants is to the great commission and finishing the work. Since God’s messenger said that ‘it is acquaintance that awakens sympathy, and sympathy is the spring of effective ministry,’ it is my prayer that they were able to be enough acquainted with refugees to be inspired with a love for souls and a conviction to personally reach out cross-culturally to refugees and migrants with the love of Jesus.”