Welcoming Family, Welcoming Strangers

Lutherans and Refugees

Sonam,* a middle-aged Bhutanese woman, had never met a Lutheran before she first arrived in the United States as a refugee. Nonetheless, Lutherans were the central bridge helping her adjust to life in a country completely foreign to her. Faith-based refugee aid is not uncommon: the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) is the third largest organization that assists the U.S. State Department in resettling refugees. Of the nine largest State Department refugee resettlement partners, five are religious organizations, but LIRS is particularly notable in its scope. With partner agencies scattered from New York to Arizona, LIRS has helped over 379,000 immigrants find jobs, apartments, and communities over the last 76 years. For a faith known more for potlucks than protests, I wondered, what led it to be so outspoken on migration issues?

This broad mission originated out of an internally oriented relief effort among German Lutherans to help Lutheran victims of Nazi persecution resettle in the United States. The service aided refugees with immigration paperwork, then local Lutheran congregations welcomed them with a community and employment.  As World War II drew to a close, the new network continued to offer Lutheran and other Christian refugees from Latvia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe sponsorship to come to the U.S. Within three years of the war’s end, the service had resettled 35,000 Lutheran immigrants.

However, as the flow of refugees from those regions slowed to a trickle, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services had to reevaluate their purpose. Some Lutheran church organizations, especially the more German and southern councils, considered LIRS’s mission complete and advocated to terminate funding. However, compelled by the faith’s ideal of welcoming the stranger, LIRS lived on.

“The Lutheran family is now pretty well in order,” LIRS director Vernon Bergstrom stated in a 1960 address to the National Lutheran Council. “Should our excellent and efficient resettlement system be left to wither on the vine, or should it be placed at the disposal of the uprooted from strange, far-off, non-Lutheran lands, who have very compelling reasons to resettle here?” Soon after Bergstrom’s speech, LIRS began accepting refugees from Vietnam, Uganda, and other locations around the world.

Above: In the late 1970s, a LIRS sponsor guides immigrants in a grocery store (courtesy ECLA Archives). Here: Christ Lutheran Church in Roanoke, V.A. holds a celebration in 1982 for the first anniversary of the Thephasouk and Chanthavixay families’ arrival in the U.S. (courtesy ECLA Archives).
Above: In the late 1970s, a LIRS sponsor guides immigrants in a grocery store (courtesy ECLA Archives). Here: Christ Lutheran Church in Roanoke, V.A. holds a celebration in 1982 for the first anniversary of the Thephasouk and Chanthavixay families’ arrival in the U.S. (courtesy ECLA Archives).

Some congregations have remained actively involved in refugee resettlement. Lisa Brennan, the head of LIRS partner organization Ascentria, explained that local Massachusetts churches still help form individual family sponsorships for new refugee arrivals, providing a long-term system of support beyond the government-sponsored services Ascentria can offer, many of which expire after three months. Partner families take refugees on trips, offer babysitting, or help with groceries in tough times, ideally forming a network of emotional and material support.

For Sonam, this system worked very well. Though she had never been to school or even been in a city before, Ascentria helped her find use for her farming skills through a program called “New Man’s Farm” that let her rent a plot of land and taught her about local soil conditions and farming practices. Now, she sells her produce at farmers’ markets and keeps the extra in a bank account Ascentria helped her open, a substitute for the old tree outside her home in Bhutan where she once kept her money. The evangelistic impulse I imagined might guide the organization was never visible: it measures success in jobs acquired and held, children’s academic success, and connections to social groups, never in religious conversions.

However, some immigrants face stronger barriers in adjusting than friendly support can overcome.  Brennan estimates that one-third of the refugees Ascentria sees arrive in the U.S. with significant mental and physical health issues that make them nearly unemployable. “Some of the people — the refugees we see from the Congo — they’ve been through so much trauma, and there’s not the mental health support to help them,” she said. Mental health services lack critical funding, and few therapists are equipped to deal with refugees’ trauma. In one of the worse cases, a refugee’s children were taken by Social Services after she was hospitalized numerous times.

“Ascentria” is a new name, a recent change from “Lutheran Social Services of New England.” Though the the organization’s link to Lutheranism might now be more vague, the new name emphasizes its mission to “rise together with people of all beliefs as we move forward” — a vision that will enable faith-based resettlement organizations to continue helping refugees like Sonam. The roots of organizations like LIRS and Ascentria were founded in the desire to help others like themselves, but theology and time have helped evolve their mission toward a broader message of tolerance and caring.

Kelsey Larson ’16 is an Economics major in Silliman College. She can be reached at kelsey.larson@yale.edu.