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Never a better time to welcome the stranger

Matthew 25 gathering focuses on what it takes to carry out Jesus’ directive

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Wednesday’s online Matthew 25 gathering focused on welcoming the stranger. The 80 or so participants learned from two Presbyterians who are currently working hard to carry out Jesus’ command to do just that.

The Rev. Gad Mpoyo, who hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the organizing pastor of Shalom International Ministries in Clarkston, Georgia, one of the most diverse communities in the country. He’s also 1001 New Worshiping Communities’ associate for the Southeast Region. Carolyn Thalman is a member of the National Response Team for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Winchester, Virginia, which is busy preparing to welcome six men from Afghanistan.

Thalman said she first became interested in refugee work when her daughter served as a Young Adult Volunteer in Guatemala. That’s when she learned there are many people “who need to be somewhere else to be safe.” Providing safety and welcome “is not something that’s comfortable for me, or not in my realm of experience. This was a brand-new open door for me that changed the way I view the world,” she said. “Now I know there are a lot of people who are hurting that need help from those of us with the capacity to help. I am one of those people.”

Carolyn Thalman (Screenshot)

First Presbyterian Church is preparing two apartments for the Afghan men. Last Saturday, volunteers placed donated furniture in both apartments. People have been generous, Thalman said — almost too generous.

“I have noticed that everyone brings toilet paper,” she said with a smile. “These six men are going to have enough toilet paper to last for a year.”

FPC’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Dan McCoig, has told the church’s resettlement support team their efforts are “a way to build congregational vitality and encourage the congregation to step up and be involved,” according to Thalman. Church World Service has established an office nearby, “and I hope the excitement stays put as CWS continues its work in Winchester.”

Mpoyo said he felt a connection in Clarkston from the first moment he set foot there after leaving his war-torn homeland and living in other African nations.

“It was confirmation that I had been called to be with people with similar experiences to what I went through,” he said, adding he’s always been inspired by the words of Deuteronomy 10:19: “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Rev. Gad Mpoyo

When the pandemic began last year, forcing the suspension of in-person education, including those offered by Shalom International Ministries, eight international students were unable to return home. The Mpoyo family responded by opening their home to the students, who remained there for about five months.

“That story embodies who we are and who we are called to be — people who seek the well-being of the community,” he said. “Our house is small, but we made sure to create a space where students would feel welcome.” Some of the students are gifted musicians, while others knew their way around video and audio challenges. All pitched in to help Mpoyo and his team transition to online worship services and educational opportunities. “In the midst of all that was happening,” he said, “we could worship God and extend hospitality to the stranger while still being a community.”

Susan Krehbiel, PDA’s associate for Refugees and Asylum, had two suggestions for forming pathways to extend welcome. One is to start the conversation with others in the congregation “and your neighbors,” she said. One way to do that is through an Advent study Krehbiel wrote with Amanda Craft, manager of Advocacy in the Office of Immigration Issues, called Preparing Welcome, designed to “help you think about what you might explore to be welcome” through four biblical texts: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7 and 17-19, 1 Cor. 1:3-9 and Mark 13:24-37. The second pathway is one Krehbiel called “the relationship piece,” creating an inventory of the people and organizations doing similar work in the community. Don’t forget to check with the local school district, Krehbiel said: “Your high school usually knows the diversity” present in the community, she said.

Mpoyo said many PC(USA) churches hosting immigrant communities of faith are seeing their relationship differently than they once did. “If we shift our mind from ‘We are just providing a space’ to ‘This is our call together,’” we begin to see that refugees come with “luggage that is visible and invisible,” he said. The invisible baggage includes culture, cuisine and different ways of worshiping God, Mpoyo said. “We find the needs and gifts everyone brings,” he said. “Building around that, you can make deep connections.”

Don’t wait — advocate

Thalman said that the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Associate Director of Advocacy for the PC(USA)’s Compassion, Peace & Justice Ministries, told a presbytery gathering that “one thing we do well as churches is we give people things and help people.” One thing we don’t do very well, Hawkins said, is advocacy. “If you can’t do hands-on ministry,” Thalman said, “you can certainly do advocacy.”

Bryce Wiebe, the director of Special Offerings and the host of Wednesday’s gathering, noted that Advent is in part about “celebrating three refugees who had to make their way looking for safety and protection.”

“I am very into preparing right now,” Thalman said. “This effort in our community will be ongoing. We expect as many as eight families” as soon as early 2022, she said. “We have had a lot of waiting.”

So have refugees, Mpoyo said, some waiting as many as eight years before even reaching the U.S.

“In this season of waiting, I think we need to have the patience and also the resilience that refugees demonstrate during the waiting period,” he said. “The church must be a resilient and patient church. If it is, the coming of Christ will be even more meaningful in our communities and our congregations.”

“You don’t have to be a large church to do this,” the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said to close the gathering, adding, “I want us to lift our sights to say we need immigration reform. We want to welcome refugees and immigrants and to look at systemic change, because that’s going to change things.”

Then she prayed: “Thank you for keeping us as we are waiting and for giving us your sure hope of resurrection and salvation power,” Moffett told the Almighty. “We must do right by others if we are to do right by you.”

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