Ministry With Migrants

February 06, 2017
Migrants and others cross the Suchiate River where it forms a border between Guatemala and Mexico. The river crossing is part of the main route that Central American migrants follow on their way north. Photo by Paul Jeffrey
By Thomas Kemper

Ministry with migrants and refugees is one of the oldest expressions of Methodist mission. The earliest Methodist missionaries from England to America were, themselves immigrants, often working among migrants. Our predecessors in the United States and today’s international United Methodist Church have welcomed generation after generation of migrants from many nations, including refugees of different faiths to the United States. We were active in the settlement house movement during the great waves of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We have worked with sojourning and displaced people around the world. We have initiated humanitarian services with both the documented and undocumented people in many places across the earth.  Many of our congregations around the globe include migrants and refugees as members and volunteer workers, as well as service recipients.

Such ministries embody our values and serve our goals of justice. “Global Migration and the Quest for Justice,” a 2016 resolution of the policy-making United Methodist General Conference advocates church “support and opportunities for refugees, asylees, and migrants, including annual [regional] conference and local church ministries that promote the Right to Stay in traditional sending countries, Safe Passage in countries of transit and training for Welcoming and Belonging in receiving locales.” This resolution, in part, protested the large number of migrant deportations carried out by the US federal government during the Obama Administration.

These UMC ministries also carry out a biblical injunction:  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1)

Today, the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s worldwide mission agency, including the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), has identified migration as a major ministry priority.  I have experienced, first-hand, the importance of this work: visiting with Syrians welcomed at a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan; talking with refugee families from Somalia and Egypt in the Istanbul Airport following the terrorist bombing last year.

We have recently engaged in extensive research on the factors and forces affecting migration in the early 21st century. We understand that the issues are complex, involving multiple players, such as nation states, global cities, international organizations, non-governmental human rights and humanitarian agencies, the global economy, and even transnational crime organizations.

Our commitment is to the welfare of the most vulnerable migrants and refugees, including those inside and fleeing from Syria and Iraq, those from Central America trapped along both the northern and southern borders of Mexico, economic migrants from the Philippines in Taiwan, Vietnamese in Malaysia, and families in the United States likely to be separated by deportation. Our missionaries throughout the world deal with refugee and migration realities on a daily basis, and many are themselves, migrants, as my wife and I were when we served as missionaries in Brazil.

We are bound by our faith in God through the love of Jesus Christ to continue our ministry with our neighbors—and migrants are our neighbors—regardless of the short-sighted and often heartless policies of national governments, including the United States, that would exclude, restrict, and penalize immigrants and refugees and those who would assist and protect them.  Donald Trump, the newly elected US president, has sent a chilling message to religious and humanitarian organizations with his announced intentions to build a wall along the Mexican border, to withhold funds from “sanctuary” cities refusing to go along with immigrant roundups, deportation as “criminals” persons who have been charged but not convicted, and threats to suspend entry of all refugees for several months and suspend entrance visas to persons from some majority-Muslim countries. Such policies--in both letter and spirit--violate Christian ethical standards and the American heritage of freedom. 

Such policies reverberate with racism, xenophobia, and special privilege for social elites. The President’s threats against Muslims do a profound disservice to the millions of followers of Islam who oppose and fight against and suffer from terrorism, including ISIS. They also create fear of and violence against minorities. Scripture tells Christians to obey God rather than human beings.  (Acts 5:29) And scripture teaches kindness, love, compassion and justice. We believe love drives out fear.

The General Board of Global Ministries will continue our ministries along the US-Mexican border, including work with Central American children moving north; our services to Syrian refugees in the Middle East and our advocacy for the admission of Syrian refugees to the US; our services  to persons caught up in the US immigration system; our work with Asian migrants in Asia; and our collaboration with other religious and humanitarian organizations opposing the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. I pray that the Trump Administration will be guided in its immigration policy by international standards of human rights and respect for migrant workers as stipulated by United Nation’s Conventions.  I pray that the US will welcome rather than reject Syrian refugees of all faiths.
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 37-40)

Thomas Kemper is the top executive of the General Board of Global Ministries. From 1986-1994, he served as a missionary in Brazil before returning to his native Germany to lead ecumenical learning at the Lippische Landeskirche, a regional church of the Association of Protestant Churches.