The Beauty of Proximity
By Christy Staats
Four years ago, my church asked me to move back from Europe – where I was serving as a missionary – to Ohio and help them set up a refugee ministry. I said I knew little about refugees and turned them down. They wanted my cross-cultural experience and after some prodding, I agreed. After over a decade overseas I returned to Ohio just as the refugee crisis was in a frenzy in the news and governors wanted to block Syrians from their states.
The beginning of what we ended up calling “Crossings” was jumping into the deep end. I saw the fear and the nervousness around immigrants and refugees, and read about it in the news cycle regularly, but more beautifully, I was able to experience what wasn’t in the nightly news. There are different kinds of stories happening that were far better than the tales of division.
Over a hundred people joined us that year to get to know their immigrant neighbors. Though our church was mostly American born, we had people from other churches and immigrants get involved as well, wanting to welcome, spend life with, and encourage refugees that we were glad they were here. Partnerships developed with resettlement agencies, airport pickups at midnight started happening, as did early morning appointments at the Social Security office with a new family in tow. People who had barely had any cross-cultural experience were getting background checked and sitting through hours of cross-cultural training with us and the resettlement agencies each month to learn to do life “with” their new immigrant neighbors, learning what was helpful and what wasn’t in communicating care cross-culturally.
Nearly 150 people came to a course called “Understanding Other Faiths” that ran for seven weeks. Now, nearly four years on, when I visit the English classes that were started in partnership with a local Christian Community Development Association organization, there are scores of immigrants in each class from around the world, laughing and learning together. I have watched a counter-narrative of evangelicals spend so much time practicing English, sharing life, and food with Afghan immigrants they get called their “American mom” or “American grandma.”
U.S.-born people have become better by discovering how many immigrant churches were in our midst that we had no idea about! These immigrant congregations are growing by leaps and bounds through sharing their faith amongst their own people and seeing many meet Jesus. It’s humbling and encouraging for American Christians to observe.
I have been changed by the faith of my Nepali and Iranian immigrant friends. I have been impacted by the hospitality and generosity of my Syrian friends and their perseverance to thrive. I have friends from Congo who are now like siblings to me.
About six months ago my dad was at a local gun club he belongs to when some of the gentlemen started speaking poorly of the neighborhood that is now heavily populated with immigrants in Akron. My dad, having grown up there, spoke up and said that he had just had dinner with an Iraqi family that our family became friends with, adding that they were some of the hardest working people he knew and that he was glad they were there.
While news headlines sometimes thrive on stories of division, what I have seen is the beauty of the impact that proximity has on a city and its suburbs. Sharing a meal or getting to know a neighbor over tea changes the story from uncertainty, isolation, anxiety and fear to friendships, family, faith, solidarity, and advocacy.