By Grayson Hester
After 20 years elapsed, scores of lives lost, and trillions of dollars spent, America’s longest war, staged primarily in Afghanistan, is over.
The Pentagon heralded its conclusion, rather somberly, by tweeting a picture of a military helicopter carrying the last remaining American service members out of the country. A conflict that started with a presidential declaration of war ended with a single Tweet.
The photo was just the latest in a series of images that have burned themselves into the collective American consciousness. For the past three weeks, America’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan has dominated headlines and news feeds, fomenting chaos abroad and confused heartache at home.
We’ve borne witness to devastating news coverage at the Kabul airport; throngs of people simply yearning to be safe, to be free; unnecessary death and destruction. It’s been difficult to hold, let alone know how to process. And amid a tumult of questions, one in particular persistently found its way to the forefront of people’s minds: What can I do? What can we do?
On a systemic, geopolitical level, there’s not much that can be done. But on an interpersonal, relational level, we can do what Jesus did in the midst of existential crisis: We can break bread and extend hospitality. We must do so.
“Christians have a unique opportunity as incoming people arrive from Afghanistan,” said Rick Sample, CBF field personnel stationed in Fremont, California. “People all over the U.S. have a chance to welcome them, help them feel this is their new home, and demonstrate God’s love to them—a kind they’ve never seen before. It’s a tremendous opportunity to impact people who have been in this trauma.”
Rick, along with Lita Sample, are coupled not only in marriage, but in a commitment to live among and serve the San Francisco Bay Area’s thriving Afghan community for the past 19 years. With more than 60,000 Afghans, it is the largest concentration of Afghan people in the entire United States. The Samples have been doing this work almost as long as the war has raged, offering vital services and hospitality to a people many Americans associate only with conflict.
And while backpacks and relocation services and ESL classes—all services the Samples provide—are important, they’re not what the Afghan people most need. What they need most is, simply and profoundly, friendship.
“Take the time to get to know them,” said Lita. “If you come and bring something, take the time to talk to them. That’s not in their culture for people to just go. They want to talk to you.”
Both Lita and Rick pointed out the loneliness of relocating to a new, unfamiliar country. This is true for refugees and immigrants from anywhere. But for Afghan people, such isolation can prove especially difficult. What often gets lost in the headlines is the humanity of Afghanistan and its people. There is more to this country than conflict; there is more to its people than pain.
Afghan culture, like many cultures in the Middle East, is deeply rooted in and respectful of hospitality. To offer a stranger tea—even in 100-degree weather—is an invitation as natural to most Afghan people as breathing. “The Afghan people are wonderful, warm and loving,” Lita said. “They never meet a stranger. They really want to know Americans and have our friendship.”
Afghan people, according to Rick and Lita, want friendship and need community.
“It’s so powerful just to invite them to your home for dinner,” Rick said. “Most Afghans have said they’ve never been inside an American home. To eat with you, to pray a blessing before your meal—inviting Muslims to your house is an extremely valuable expression of friendship. They’re very hospitable themselves; so to receive hospitality is very important to them.”
But, most of all, they need to tell their story. “The most important thing is to hear them, listen to their stories, find that common ground, mothers to mothers, fathers to fathers,” Lita said. “We understand wanting to protect children. Relate to them.”
“It is easy work. It isn’t hard at all,” Lita continued. “It might be hard to hear the tragedy of their lives, but it helps to bring healing by allowing them to share their burden with someone who cares about them. We often ask if we can pray for them and because prayer is important to them, they most often agree. What makes this holy is that God is in the middle of all of it. He provides peace and comfort through us, which we could not do on our own. God allows us to be used to bring His care to people who need it most.”
San Francisco Bay Area to Research Triangle, N.C.
On the other side of the country, another couple is doing similar work and independently offered similar advice. CBF field personnel Kim and Marc Wyatt, based in the Research Triangle of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh), have, like the Samples, ample experience with Afghan people. And though their focus is different—the Wyatts deal primarily with housing, both temporary and permanent—their mission is the same. “Our word, our encouragement, is that to welcome someone goes way beyond being Santa Claus or a social worker,” Kim said. “It is being family. And family is good, bad and ugly. It’s that we experience life’s joys and life’s sadness together. In those places, as we hear each other’s stories, we also get to share what matters to us. That’s where our faith and experience come in.”
The Wyatts offered a profoundly localized message, reminding Christians that we need not travel all the way across the globe to do God’s work in the world. At all times, but especially now with the arrival of new Afghan refugees, we merely need to cross the street. “The church is awake to this happening all over the country,” said Marc. “The church is awake to this and it wants to be that neighbor, that helper, just as if this were a hurricane or forest fire. This is a grand opportunity for us as a nation and for churches to rise up and be the people we believe we are.”
Churches and congregations need not specialize in housing to make room in their homes. It’s a process that begins with intentionality and is sustained by hospitality. It begins, according to the Wyatts, with a simple question: Who has first contact with refugees?
Instead of asking, “Where can I give?” the Wyatts recommend that we ask, “With whom can I partner?” In nearly every metro area across the country, there are numerous organizations designed to minister to, advocate for and be in community with refugee and immigrant populations. We need not do this work alone. We should not do this work alone.
“We’re not doing this by ourselves. All around us are many language-specific congregations who don’t need training in cross-cultural witness,” said Marc. “What we need to do as white, American, English-speaking congregations, is to see those congregations as leaders among us, have them step in front of us, and show us how we can support them.” The next step is to identify, within your own congregations, what resources can be shared with those who need them most.
“What are the houses you own, such as an un-utilized missionary house?” Kim said. “Consider opening it up to Afghans and refugees who need it. Housing, temporary and permanent, has become more and more a challenge. Consider, too, calling those who are in our churches who own properties and asking that they open them up below market value, to allow people to pay what they can.”
And even if your church can’t take these specific steps, what matters more than the resources you can provide is the hospitality you can offer. Separated by thousands of miles but united in purpose, the Samples and the Wyatts consistently mention hospitality as the most important thing we can offer our Afghan neighbors.
The sheer weight of the suffering, the enormity of the problem, can overwhelm. We can feel helpless. And maybe sometimes we are. But what we are not is hopeless. As long as the God of Eucharist, the Christ of the open table, the Mary of home and hospitality are our guides, we can remain confident in our abilities to minister to the orphan, the widow, the refugee, the immigrant, the Afghan.
There are calls of encouragement for action from our field personnel: “We have to see church as the people, presence and community who might happen to gather in the building from time to time,” Marc said. “We are a beloved community that invites people in, extends invitations to people intentionally. The call to churches right now, in the context of the Afghan community that’s coming, is that we should be the first best neighbor they should ever meet. We should be the one that extends hospitality, holistic presence, genuine community to people from another part of the world.”
“This is a huge opportunity. It is risk-taking because few of us enjoy being uncomfortable; but the discomfort lasts for only a little while,” Kim said. “As the friendships emerge, the love grows, then it’s friend-to-friend, and that’s where God is at work among God’s people and we see God in one another. We say, ‘Welcome, family, sister, brother, to one another,’ across cultures and language and economies.”
“Building that relationship is so important,” Lita said. “We have to know that this process, this working out salvation, is a long, long-term thing. It takes years and years of building relationship. It takes being consistent, no matter what. That’s what Christ calls us to—to love the refugee, the ‘stranger’ in our land. We know what we have to do: We have to be obedient to Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to do the rest.”
“We don’t know all the burden that the Afghan people carry” Rick said. “We just know, as we meet and embrace the Afghan people in our community, that we can be a voice of compassion and be present in our lives with them. And through our presence, as they long for peace in their lives, we bring point them to the one who can bring that to them — the Prince of Peace — and that’s what’s truly important.”
The CBF Offering for Global Missions supports the long-term presence of field personnel like Lita and Rick Sample and Kim and Marc Wyatt serving in the United States and around the world. Support the Offering at www.cbf.net/ogmgive.