Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in New Jersey did what it always does when deciding to help a family in need.
The congregation’s act of compassion, however, has received much more attention than any of its members or its pastor, the Rev. Brad Motta, anticipated. That’s because this particular family just happened to be Syrian refugees.
Another way to help
Church World Service, a United Methodist partner, is one of the organizations seeking to help refugees find stability and comfort.
According to the group’s officials, the path to the U.S. for a Syrian refugee family has never been an easy one.
“It’s not really available for many folks, only a small percentage,” said Will Haney, the associate director of external relations for Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program.
“One percent of refugees are eligible for resettlement. This is not going to solve the refugee crisis, but it is a hope for a lot of refugees.”
In all, Church World Service has 33 offices in the United States, and the agency has helped 2,300 Syrian refugees resettle in the country since 2011. For some of those refugees, coming to the U.S. is giving them a life they have never known.
Haney knows that national security is a concern for many. Church World Service has addressed security worries for years.
Refugees, he noted, are the most vetted population that arrives in the U.S., with multiple intelligence agencies checking up on them.
When Syrians arrive at refugee camps, they are fingerprinted and undergo iris scans ─ the process of recognizing a person by analyzing the random pattern of the iris in the eye.
“If we don’t have that information, they won’t be accepted to come to the U.S.,” Haney said. “We know there is a lot of rhetoric out there, but we just don’t see it.”
Politicians, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have called for suspending entry of Syrian refugees into the United States. While Motta understands the concerns, he says that’s no excuse to not help others.
“We can have fear at first, but you can’t live in fear because that is not going to take you anywhere,” Motta said.
“You can live in fear and not have a life or live in compassion and the message of love and have a magnificent life.”
What has happened in and around Morrow since it was first publicized the church was sponsoring a Syrian refugee family has been magnificent in many ways.
‘God of Abraham being united’
Morrow has received handwritten letters from all around the United States applauding it for taking compassionate action. Along with receiving individual donations from the Maplewood, New Jersey, community, Mayor Victor DeLuca has given his full support and the local Girl Scout troop has made donations to the family. In another example of generosity, a Jewish boy decided to donate money to the Syrian family as his Hanukkah gift.
“We had a Jewish boy give money to a Christian church to help a Muslim family,” said Dorothy Wetzel, Morrow’s director of global outreach. “I think that is the God of Abraham being united.”
That’s not all. An atheist family is now sending its children to the youth group at Morrow.
The family arrived the day before Thanksgiving.
Motta wasn’t sure what to think when, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the CBS2 New York television truck showed up at Morrow unannounced. Motta believes someone at CBS2 knew of the family coming through a Maplewood community Facebook post. He agreed to go on air to talk about why and how the church was helping the Syrian family.
The following Tuesday, he appeared on MSNBC’s “Live With Kate Snow” to talk about the topic as well.
“As soon as the interview on MSNBC was over, people were stopping me in the hall there and saying our church is doing amazing things,” Motta said. “I even got an email from their booking person who said they were thankful for what our church was doing.”
All this came just 10 days after Motta presented the idea of sponsoring a Syrian family to the church board, which unanimously approved the outreach.
How the family came to New Jersey
The opportunity for Morrow came about in part because the Rev. Brenda Ehlers, the associate pastor, serves on the board of First Friends New York New Jersey. Part of the First Friends’ ministry is visiting immigrants, who are seeking asylum and being held in detention facilities.
They cannot be released from those facilities until they receive federal and state clearance. Their stays in the detention centers can last up to five years.
The father of this Syrian refugee family had been in the U.S. for two years, seeking asylum after undergoing persecution and torture in Syria. His wife and three children remained in Syria, moving around to avoid persecution and violence themselves.
The father and the rest of the family had some contact during that time during the one hour a day the family had electricity.
“After about a year and a half, the mother said she felt she would never get out,” Motta said. “She didn’t think they would make it.”
The Syrian father was receiving support from International Rescue Committee, which made the request to First Friends to help this family.
So, just eight days after the church council voted to help, the family was reunited in time to celebrate a U.S. Thanksgiving.
“At that point we thought they would pretty much need everything,” Motta said. “We just began contacting people who had expressed an interest in helping to give them a place to stay and someplace to go for Thanksgiving. We got a spreadsheet and just made a plan. We had a place for them to go for Thanksgiving in a half an hour.”
Donations started pouring in from the congregation and wider community.
“It was just a great opportunity for people to see and live the Christian life and to know that we are a church that welcomes people.”
Clearing up misconceptions
On Thanksgiving Eve, the Syrian family spent its first night together in approximately two years in a hotel room on that Thanksgiving Eve. Those helping the family were reminded the things taken for granted in the U.S.
“When the water worked in the hotel room, one of the kids came out and asked if they should be saving it,” Ehlers said. Previously, the family had access to water for an hour once a week, so saving was a must.
The United Methodists also had to clear up some misconceptions about the United States.
When the Syrian family was asked if they knew what Thanksgiving was about, their first response was “Black Friday.”
While there may be some truth to that, it wasn’t the only stereotype the Syrians had of the United States.
“These people are coming from an area of fear and violence,” said Kathy Finch, the treasurer at Morrow. “So when they hear what some of our politicians are saying, it just enhances that fear.”
Bishop John Schol is also glad to hear that fear is not ruling out compassion.
“We are proud of Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church and any other Greater New Jersey United Methodist church who welcomes Syrian refugees,” he said. “It is the sign that Christ is in our midst. While we are aware that our governor is opposed to welcoming Syrian refugees, we recognize it is our calling to welcome the immigrant and to share radical hospitality.”
Part of Morrow’s hospitality is to create an atmosphere of trust. A big step in that direction took place at a special evening service that Morrow celebrated the first Sunday in December. The church invited the Syrian family, and they attended.
“It was one of the most powerful experiences to see that,” said Andrea Wren-Hardin, Morrow Memorial lay leader. “What an example of Christmas and how Christ taught us to live.”
Jeff Wolfe is the editorial manager for the Greater New Jersey Conference. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.