Serving Immigrants & Refugees
By Shane & Jennie Ellison
Shane and I both grew up in the church and were blessed to feel the need for Christ early in our lives. Shane had a more devout idea of his life calling than I did as a child. He saw himself building houses in Africa, while I wanted to be single and run a farm for displaced cheetahs. Nothing against cheetah farmers, but God has since given us a calling as a couple, and now as a family, to invest in a population close to His heart: immigrants and refugees.
God’s Heart for Immigrants and Refugees
There is a strong and clear biblical mandate for Christians to love, welcome, and serve immigrants and refugees. Zechariah 7:10a states, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.” These four groups have been coined “the quartet of the vulnerable” by American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, a phrase also used by pastor and author Tim Keller. We attended Keller’s church, Redeemer, in NYC, and were struck by his messages concerning these four groups and the biblical form of justice. In his book Generous Justice, he defines two Hebrew words, tzadeqah and mishpat. Tzadeqah, or righteousness, has to do with the manner in which people are in a right relationship with God and with others through the maintenance of actions that are fair and blameless. Mishpat, or justice, is “giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care” (Keller). When the words are used together, as they are over three dozen times in the Bible, Keller states it should be translated as “social justice.” This term has not been popular in some evangelical circles for various reasons. However, there should be no denying the fact that God has a heart for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant.
Immigrants and refugees often find themselves carrying the sad distinction of fitting into more than one of these groups, as many times they are poor and orphaned or widowed when they arrive in their new country. The idea of a biblical social justice connotes not only that we are not supposed to oppress these groups, but we are supposed to love them proactively and seek justice for them. God instructed the Israelites to love the immigrant and treat them as they would a fellow Israelite (Deuteronomy 10:19, Exodus 12:49). And Jesus summed up the whole law by saying, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). Immigrants and refugees are our neighbors, both figuratively and literally here in the U.S. Therefore, our calling is simple - to love and treat them as we would ourselves.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are 68.5 million displaced people currently, exceeding the total during World War II. Of those, 25.4 million are refugees and 3.1 million are seeking asylum. In the midst of this, a number of countries, the U.S. included, have increasingly looked upon refugees skeptically, even though the data undermines any claims that they present a security threat. Currently, U.S. refugee admissions are at an historic low. For those refugees who clear the numerous hurdles to obtaining status in the U.S., they face a number of additional challenges once they arrive.
Called to Omaha
Shane and I both wanted to shape our careers around helping vulnerable international populations. I graduated with a degree in public health, with an international health concentration, and Shane completed his law degree with an emphasis in immigration and refugee law. After law school, Shane worked as an asylum officer within the Department of Homeland Security in New York. While he was able to grant asylum to many people in need of protection, it was frustrating to not be able to actively advocate for the asylum seekers. We prayed that the Lord would allow him to work on behalf of immigrants and refugees. Two months after our first daughter, Charlotte, was born, he was offered a job here in Omaha in what is now called the Immigrant Legal Center (formerly Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska). The Immigrant Legal Center’s mission is to welcome immigrants into our communities by providing pro bono legal services, education, and advocacy. There he has found not just an occupation, but a calling.
The second summer after we moved to South Omaha, we held our first neighborhood block party. We hand-delivered the invitations and found that most people did not respond to knocking or ringing the doorbell, so we mostly left them in the mail slot and moved to the next house. At one house, however, after the usual amount of knocking, Shane felt the Lord telling him he shouldn’t move on. So he stayed there and knocked. And knocked. Finally, a young woman came to the door, crying. They started talking and he learned that she was experiencing deep emotional pain. She confided that she had been contemplating suicide. He invited her to our house and we were able to hear her whole story as a refugee coming here from Africa. We learned that she was a believer and sought to remind her of her of precious value in the eyes of Jesus. We let her know we were there for her. God has since blessed her and we plan to attend her wedding later this year. We are so happy she is well and that God told Shane to keep knocking on her door.
Last spring, we were put in touch with a Syrian family. A refugee resettlement agency had said this widow with three children would appreciate visitors. At that time, we were attending Citylight Midtown, and her apartment was a few blocks from the Omar building, so we would go after church on Sundays to visit her and the children. The first Sunday we went, we took some small toys and halal food as a way to welcome her and break the ice. Her English was very limited, but between her few words of English, Shane’s few words of Arabic, hand gestures, and Google Translate, we smiled and laughed our way through the visit while the kids played together as only kids can, regardless of language barriers. We continued to visit her and the kids through the spring and assisted in them moving to a better home. We discovered she had another American friend who had been helping the family by herself for several months and it was good to be able to come alongside her in helping this family.
While refugees are given certain services, the bureaucracy of obtaining and maintaining those services make it almost impossible for them to navigate it themselves. I would go over during the mornings while the girls were in school, and she would serve me tea while I looked over the letters she’d received in the mail and could not understand. Sometimes it was junk mail, other times a simple phone call was all that was needed. When there was an online application required or a visit to a governmental office, I would wonder at how they could be expected to complete these steps by themselves. She is determined to learn English to obtain independence for herself and her family, so her friend and I alternate in taking her to language classes. It is a slow process as the Arabic alphabet is completely different from the English alphabet. Nevertheless, she is indefatigable and such an inspiration to us. At some point, she started calling me ‘sister,’ which I am honored to call her, too. When she first began learning to drive, I asked if she would feel comfortable having Shane take her for a driving lesson, and she said, of course, he was like her brother.
In Matthew 25:35, Jesus states, “For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was detained and you came to visit Me.” When we live out this verse, two things occur. First, when we welcome the stranger, they do not stay strangers, they can become like family. Secondly and most profoundly, when we welcome the stranger, we are welcoming Christ Himself.