A New Vision, A New Voice ~ The North Texas Conference
Jesus was a refugee, too? ‘It makes me proud of my story’
Refugee Sunday forges new relationships as First UMC Denton hosts Chin families.
Churches of the North Texas Conference observed Refugee Sunday on Dec. 3, the first Sunday of Advent. With this invitation came resources connecting the Advent story of the holy family’s flight into Egypt to find refuge from Herod’s cruelty with the plight of displaced people globally and refugee neighbors in our own communities.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 65 million displaced persons worldwide, the highest figure on record. In 2016, Dallas received more than 4,000 refugees for resettlement, the most of any metropolitan area in the United States. Refugee Sunday helped churches in the North Texas Conference to engage with this opportunity to better love their neighbors at home and abroad.
FUMC-Denton brought the refugee stories into the life of the congregation. Through school partnerships, members and clergy developed relationships with the large Myanmar refugee community in Denton County. The community is Chin, a group of people from Myanmar (formerly Burma), who are persecuted by the military junta for their ethnicity and Christian religion and who have come to the Dallas area under asylum. Members of the Chin community and those who serve with them were honored guests in worship.
In each worship service, the liturgy and prayers reflected the theme of God’s heart for strangers and the vulnerable. Pastors preached about the story of Jesus, a refugee child, and called the church to compassion. In the traditional services, a Chin pastor prayed, served communion and offered the benediction. In the modern worship service, a Chin young adult told the story of his journey from Myanmar to the United States, as well as the difficult reality of being a refugee facing a new country, culture and language, and the ways that people of good will showed compassion and welcome. His story and its connection with the Advent story was powerful, challenging and inspiring.
During Sunday school, the church hosted two informational sessions about the global refugee crisis and the resettlement process. In these well-attended sessions, two refugees told their stories and gave insight into what causes someone to flee their home, live in a refugee camp and make the journey to a new country. Through storytelling, the attendees, from youth to senior adults, walked away with a new understanding of this large humanitarian crisis.
Throughout the day, Refugee Services of Texas offered information and service opportunities. Refugee Services invited the church to support newcomers by providing rides and supporting the newcomer holiday party with gifts and food.
A special offering was taken in the worship services for Chinstrong, a program supporting at-risk Chin secondary school students. This program seeks to intervene when challenges surface amid the difficult circumstances of refugees’ lives.
Formal assistance from the United Nations and U.S. government ends after six months. Beyond that, refugees are expected to be self-sufficient despite the obstacles of poverty, language, culture and untreated trauma. The prevalence of drugs and alcohol in the U.S. add to the challenges for our refugee neighbors. Chinstrong brings together the resources of a community athletic center, drug and alcohol counselors, and leadership development to illuminate a different path for resettled youth. FUMC-Denton raised enough money to fully fund two cohorts of the Chinstrong program.
The most important outcomes of Refugee Sunday were the new perspectives and relationships created. For the Chin community, there was a sense of empowerment and pride in getting a chance to have their stories heard. For one Chin young man, it was the first time he had heard that Jesus was also a refugee: “I used to get mad when people called me a refugee, but now that I know Jesus was a refugee, it makes me proud of my story,” he said.
Later that week, an email arrived from a mother whose sixth-grade son had been inspired by Refugee Sunday, particularly getting the chance to hear from a refugee about what it was like to go to high school and not speak the language or know the culture. The sixth-grader looked around the lunchroom and spotted a kid who appeared to be an immigrant. He sat with him and began a friendship.
When he came home, he told his mother about his new friend: “Muhammad is really cool.” As the mother said, the message of Refugee Sunday was heard and made a difference in two young men’s lives that week.