By Chris Hughes
For Rev. Mark Mofield, it was a pregnant moment full of possibilities for faith and politics to collide right in the middle of his church, and for things to get messy.
As senior pastor of Temple Baptist Church, a CBF-affiliated congregation in Durham, N.C., he and the church’s deacon team had just hosted their first family of refugees. They decided to repurpose their Temple Home, a church property used to house families seeking care at Duke University Medical Center, to offer the family secure housing in the critical first 90 days of arrival in the United States. Mofield then invited Kim and Marc Wyatt, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel based in Raleigh, N.C., as well as representatives from World Relief to talk to the church about their work with refugee resettlement.
When his congregation gathered that night, it was one of the first opportunities for the church to talk openly about their feelings around refugee resettlement in the U.S. In the current political climate, with a White House administration that is increasingly hostile towards refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers, discussions like these can easily become divisive. When the presentation turned to Q&A, Mofield braced for things to get heated. However, the hostility and divisive rhetoric that are commonplace on cable news never came.
“I was waiting for this tense, political moment; but when I looked around at our church, I didn’t see that,” Mofield remembered. Instead, the members of Temple Baptist moved more deeply into compassion as they began discussing ways to expand their support of refugees in their community. Whatever their feelings may have been before, Mofield believes the direct interaction between his congregation and this family of refugees had transformed the issue from a political abstraction into human reality.
“I don’t think we would have reacted in such a Kingdom way had we not just engaged with that family seeking housing,” Mofield said. “For us, it put a face on it. It wasn’t just an issue anymore; it was about people.”
The process of starting a new life in the U.S. is becoming increasingly difficult as the White House has paired harsh rhetoric with restrictive policies. In 2016, the Obama Administration set a goal for 110,00 refugees to be resettled in 2017. Upon taking office, the Trump Administration made good on election season promises to severely restrict immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees from entering the country. The targets for refugee resettlement dropped severely, from 45,000 in 2018 to 18,000 in 2020.
The number of actual refugee arrivals to the country have plummeted as a result and in October 2019, the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. hit zero for the first time since records have been kept. With the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Trump Administration announced in April a complete freeze on immigration to the U.S., a measure it believes will stem the spread of the virus. This came at a time when the United Nations estimates there are around 26 million refugees worldwide, many of whom are fleeing persecution or violence in their home countries.
The drop in refugee resettlement is especially frustrating for Kim Wyatt who, along with her husband Marc, has ministered with refugee families for more than 20 years. Based in Raleigh, N.C., the Wyatts work with churches throughout the region to provide housing for the first 90 days upon arrival to the U.S. In the first 90 days, new refugee arrivals receive assistance from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and must find permanent housing. Often, new arrivals pass through a patchwork of temporary housing solutions, short stays in hotel rooms for example, until they find something permanent. But the difficulties are not over. Many refugees languish in refugee camps for years and cannot read or write in their own language, let alone speak English. The Wyatts’ ministry is critical for filling in the gaps left by the government and refugee resettlement agencies.
In 2015, the Wyatts opened their first Welcome House in Raleigh to address the housing needs for refugee arrivals. From 2015 to 2017, they housed over 150 refugees, offering assistance and fostering relationships to help bridge the gap for new arrivals to find permanent housing and be able to make their way in a new country. Their innovative model inspired congregations like Temple Baptist to open their own Welcome Houses, tapping underutilized or repurposed church properties to temporarily house refugees. There are now eight welcome houses—seven in North Carolina and one in Knoxville, Tenn. The network’s 400th refugee guest was welcomed in March.
But the Wyatts’ ministry changed drastically as a result of the decline of refugees coming to the U.S.
“It gave us a chance to pause and think about what our primary mission is,” Wyatt said. “We came to the conclusion that it was more about building deeper relationships with people who are coming to this country. We saw it as a new opportunity.”
They closed that first Welcome House in 2017, finding it more effective to rent an apartment in a nearby neighborhood to serve as a landing spot for new refugees and focus on long-term relationships. Kim and Marc help refugees find their way in the U.S. by offering English as a second language classes, tutoring, childcare and early education programs that they were unable to offer before. They also get to know families on a much deeper level. “We get to visit with them in their homes,” Kim shared. “They often invite us over for tea. We read letters they receive that they can’t read themselves.”
“We are meeting the felt needs of these refugees: They need to learn English; their children need help with homework; they need help getting things worked on in their homes,” Kim said.
The Wyatts believe welcoming refugees transcends the political polarization and cuts to the heart of Christian faith. Rather than shying away from the issue, she believes it has galvanized people of faith. “The change in our country’s view of the stranger and the foreigner alters how people in churches commit to this,” Kim said. “They no longer want to simply say they care about the stranger, they want to show it.”
“We see it as a Kingdom challenge,” Mofield says of his church. “It’s not about whether we are Republicans or Democrats. As Christians, we’re to care for the stranger in our midst.”
Rev. Ryan Eller, executive director of Define American, an immigrant advocacy group, and an ordained Baptist minister, agrees. “For Christians, this attack on persecuted groups is particularly egregious and a betrayal to anyone who believes the scriptures’ clear call to love our neighbor.” His organization works to shift the narrative around immigration through storytelling and relationships, similar to the ways the Wyatts and Temple Baptist are working to change minds and hearts in their contexts.
“It is in our nation’s best interest,” Eller said, “to welcome those who seek refuge on our shores and it hurts our country to close our doors to the world.”
Despite the political climate and divisive rhetoric, Kim and Marc feel this is a time to stand firm. “This is not a time to sit on the fence, this is a time to be bold,” the said
To learn more about Kim and Marc Wyatt’s ministry and the Welcome House network and to support this work, visit www.cbf.net/wyatt.