Northern California Churches Help Resettle Refugee Families
*By Dr. Larry R. Hygh, Jr.
"As Christians, we are called to love one another, to welcome one another, and to care for one another…We are called to do this even when, especially when, that is hard," says Jessie Tientcheu, a member of The Table at Central United Methodist Church (The Table) in Sacramento. The Table has worked with a local Sacramento organization, Opening Doors, a Church World Service affiliate, to help resettle two refugee families in the Sacramento area.
Tientcheu, whose grandmother came to the United States in the 1930s, and who coordinates The Table's efforts, says, "I am only here today because someone welcomed her." She added, "This is a country of immigrants and the US has a long history of providing shelter and refuge to people fleeing persecution elsewhere."
Three months ago the church welcomed a family of four from Iraq, and a few weeks ago a family of five from Afghanistan. Church members donated and fully furnished the apartments of both families. Volunteers from the church also assist the families with transitioning into a new community, as well as daily tasks. These tasks include driving the families to appointments such as enrolling kids in school, going to the health and human services offices, and shopping. Opening Doors focuses on the first 90 days of transition, but the church wants to be in relationship with the refugee families beyond the 90 days if it is the wish of the family.
Greg Eddy, a member of The Table, volunteers and says, "I've taken families to medical exams, the bank, welfare to work, and to register for English as a Second Language classes." He added, "Refugees come with nothing but their hopes and dreams. Their resilience and courage makes us better people, a better nation…meeting, learning from, and becoming friends with people from another culture helps me."
The Rev. Matthew Smith, co-pastor of The Table, worked for two years after college with Lutheran Social Services in Minneapolis as a case manager with West African refugees. Smith says, "The call to welcome the stranger is God's call all the time…one of the ways God transforms us is through our relationships with people across differences." Smith says one of the most powerful, and sobering, images to witness is to show up at the airport and greet five people as they get off a plane with a few bags, realizing everything they own fits into the back of a van. He says, "It's people of faith seeing their Christian identity navigating life with these Muslim families."
The Circuit that includes Asbury UMC in Livermore, Castro Valley UMC, Grace UMC in San Ramon, Lynnewood UMC in Pleasanton, and San Ramon Valley UMC in Alamo has been cooperatively working with Catholic Charities of the East Bay (CCEB) since last May to resettle families. Last May, they supported a mother and her two young sons from Yemen. A few weeks ago, they welcomed a family of seven from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Liz Bayat, a member of San Ramon Valley UMC, chairs and coordinates the Circuit's refugee resettlement efforts with CCEB. Bayat says, "Most refugees coming to our country do not want to be here. They have had to leave their country due to war, political or religious persecution, or a devastated economy…most people who come here are educated, driven, and want to work." The Circuit raised between 10 and 20 thousand dollars prior to the families arriving. The money is used to help assist the families with rent, food, and other basic needs until they can find jobs and get on their feet.
The East Bay resettles roughly 700 to 800 refugees per year. Catholic Charities oversees around 200 of those cases.
Bayat says, "I think it's so important that, as we welcome new families into our wonderful country that we also really help them assimilate and feel welcome, long term, not just for a few weeks, but for years…I'm amazed at the outpouring of help from people of all church faiths."
*Hygh is director of communications for the California-Nevada Conference comprised of 370 churches and 78,000 United Methodists in Northern California and Northern Nevada. He is also a member of The Table at Central UMC.