Discerning Welcome – A Reformed Faith Approach to Refugees

Welcoming the undocumented resident refugee into the life of the polis is a challenge for some communities and a moral imperative for others. This books provides a Christian ethic for church leaders, congregants, and their churches to discern a way of welcoming their neighbors who are refugees residing in the US without authorization. Grounded in political theology and the Presbyterian-Reformed faith tradition, the ethical debates presented here and the legal overview of US immigration and alienage laws applicable to the undocumented resident lead to practices of worship, witness, and welcome for churches that can be tailored to different contexts.

When Jesus challenged the sharp lawyer to love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer asked Jesus: “who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan. Then Jesus asked the lawyer: “who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And the crestfallen lawyer answered: “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus told him “to go and do likewise.” This book assists faith communities to find mercy for those undocumented refugee neighbors who many would condemn. It points a path towards doing the “likewise” of mercy in ethically defensible ways.

An interview with Ellen Clark Clemot

What is your book about and what do you mean by the title “discerning welcome?”

The book is about the how to decide the best way to welcome refugees entering America, including asylum-seekers already residing in America, but who lack legal status to stay.  Do citizens have an ethical obligation to help them?  People who have fled their home countries in fear for their lives and found refuge in the U.S. need a practical path to citizenship or the restoration of legal resident status.  The title “Discerning Welcome” is a reference to the discernment process that every citizen, and also church congregations, can apply to find ways of welcoming this special group of refugees who are already living in the neighborhood, but risking losing their place there for reasons unrelated to their personal need for safety and peaceful existence in the community. 

What led you to write this book?

I lived through the experience of leading a congregation that was torn about what to do when one of its long-time members, who everyone knew was a refugee, was arrested for having an expired visa.  He was put in jail despite having a wife and two children in school, a steady job at a local factory, a driver’s license, and a work permit.  He paid his taxes, and he tithed.  The church was aghast that the government could, or would, do such a thing.  They did not want to support a law-breaker, but they never thought of their brother in Christ in this way.  They were torn about how they might help other people in his situation in the future.  They had to go through a process of discernment, to balance their desire for upholding the law, with their conviction that their friend was unjustly arrested.  I wanted to tell their story, and also provide guidance for other congregations so that they would be prepared to take ethical, grace-filled action when similar situations might arise.  In 2022, 70,000 Afghani refugees entered Fort Dix, New Jersey as refugees and we await the arrival of many Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn homeland as well.  The need for welcome is real.  I hope this book equips its readers to discern the best way forward in their local communities.

Is there one right answer to welcoming refugees?

I personally lived out the very hard question that this book puts to congregants: how do we welcome the refugee who has been living in our neighborhood for a long time, but has fallen outside legal residence categories, without breaking the law ourselves?  As a lawyer, I cannot recommend law-breaking activity to anyone.  But as a Presbyterian minister, I can point to examples where God’s law reigns supreme over the laws of the government.  We have seen this conflictual situation in cases of extreme abuse by the Nazis during World War II, and even in the Russian invasion of the Ukraine today.  Sometimes defending justice against evil requires following higher laws.  But how do we decide?  And what actions are ethically acceptable steps to take that would uphold God’s law to love our neighbor, while also upholding the peace of the polis, the community in which we live?  What I found is that there is no one answer that fits all communities or congregations.  So much depends on local context, even the climate of a place can have an effect on our decision-making.  One thing this book provides is a vocabulary, and a thought process, based in Reformed faith religious principles, that helps the reader decide, and explain, his or her decisions.

What do you mean by Reformed Faith, and what does the Reformed Faith say about refugee welcome that is different from other bases of discernment?

By Reformed faith, I mean the Protestant tradition that stems from the Reformation era thinking of John Calvin.  His theological understanding of a covenantal relationship with God and the practical application in having a democratically-elected, horizontally shared leadership model between lay leaders and clergy as elders of the church are hallmarks of the Reformed tradition.  Reformed faith congregations in the U.S. and Canada include Presbyterians, the Reformed Church of America, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Dutch-Reformed Church.  But cousins include the United Church of Christ and the Congregationalists.

Calvin was himself a refugee, fleeing from France for his life after he adopted ideas inimical to the State religion of Roman Catholicism.  He pushed further on the reforms of Martin Luther already expressed against the teachings of the Roman Catholic church of their day.  Calvin’s life experience led to his work in providing refugee welcome to other French Huguenots fleeing France for Switzerland where Protestant ideals were accepted and had become the norm.  The Reformed faith traditions acknowledge that civil society shares one similar goal with the church: to maintain a stable and peaceful community.  

As a result, the Reformed faith tradition is willing to abide by secular laws governing the society, so long as they are not contrary to God’s commands for the preservation of the common good.  Other traditions might argue for a separate existence from the secular world in order to maintain the purity of the church.  Still others might always insist on giving preferential treatment to the poor as taking priority over all else.  But the Reformed tradition will weigh out the pros and cons of assisting one group over another, in order to ensure the ongoing stability and peacefulness of the community.  The goal of the Reformed faith is to preserve the regular worship of God.  To love and worship God is the Reformed church’s priority, even as it seeks to embrace neighbor love, care for the poor, and welcome of the refugee.  Some have criticized Presbyterians as being a denomination of fence-sitters, and to some extent, the traditions does lend itself to compromise in order to ensure an earthly peace and a stable place for worship.  But this book aims to help people make decisions they can act on and get off the fence altogether.

What is one of the most important insights you discovered in researching your book on refugee welcome

I discovered how critical it is for human survival, and for the mere recognition of one’s existence, to be a citizen of a country.  It sounds simple, and yet the loss of citizenship, the lack of a passport that gives proof of what sovereign protects you, means that you have no sovereign protection left but God.  God is great, but God alone does not ensure our survival in this geo-political world of nation-states we inhabit.  Loss of citizenship is loss of identity, and it is an enormous problem for anyone fleeing for their lives away from a country that does not offer a safe and stable place to live.  

In Discerning Welcome, I discuss several examples of refugee flight, including the case of the Jews fleeing Germany in World War II.  The philosopher Hanna Arendt was among them.  She recounted how they were first stripped of their German citizenship.  Segregationist laws were passed in Nazi Germany that left the Jews stateless, and impossible to emigrate unless some other country was willing to take them in as refugees.  The U.S. notoriously was not helpful in welcoming the Jews to its shores during that time period.  But those refugees who could obtain false passports showing that they belonged to any other nation-state had a status that could save their lives.  

One section of my book discusses this stateless refugee as “bare life” – and the political connection that is made with every human and the place of their birth.  Once stripped of this political connection, we lose our means for survival in secular society.  God still recognizes us as precious creation, and so does the church.  But the question becomes, how can the church, and every congregant, restore “bare life” refugees to a political existence that will give them a flourishing life, both in the political community (the polis) and in their spiritual life under God?  That is the nub of the problem that Discerning Welcome equips us to answer.

How does your book relate to the refugees from the Ukraine nation?

It gave me chills when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin threatened to strip the Ukrainians of their statehood in March of 2022.  I am not at all sure how he intended to accomplish that political act coming from a separate, neighboring nation-state, other than conquering their country, which is what he was attempting at the time by the unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine.  But the mere threat of stripping Ukrainians of their statehood is the first step towards taking away their political identity.  And taking away their political identity is the destructive step that denigrates the people of that nation to the powerless, stateless situation I describe as “bare life.”  

Without a passport, without rights, without political identity, God’s people are doomed.  They find themselves just one step away from gas chambers and gulags, where other countries turn their backs on them as refugees and victims of political terror because these people have politically disappeared.  They cannot be helped if they lack the papers that show they exist.  Living, breathing, stateless people, politically speaking, no longer exist.  Arendt writes a famous description of this spiraling process of political disappearance.  Others have embellished it.  It ends in death of the refugee and is a chilling reminder of how fragile our lives are, and how vulnerable our lives are, to the whims of the nation-states.

How does Discerning Welcome help churches and students discern ways to welcome refugees moving into, or already present in their neighborhoods?

First, it provides a vocabulary, a way of understanding the goals of peaceful community life, and the goals of peaceful refugee life, to find common ground.  It helps people with different points of view express their concerns and desires to discover the full spectrum of ethical actions and viewpoints.  Knowing that we can disagree and still be neighborly, is a burden lifted, and an obstacle out of the way.

Second, the book provides a blueprint for theological thinking that includes the political realities facing refugees.  Offering the Reformed Faith tradition as a golden thread that ties together the ethical, legal, and practical aspects of refugee welcome, the book explains one faith-based approach to neighbor love.  It compares others, such as the Roman Catholic social teaching based in preference for the poor.  And it invites everyone to begin to think ethically in ways that find solutions to the problems facing refugee neighbors already in the community. 

Third, the book offers concrete examples of ways that other church communities and community organizers have welcomed refugees in America in the past.  These examples include providing resource centers, legal aid, sanctuary, worship welcome, social services, and advocacy for legislative change.  

What do you hope that readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope that readers will discover the complexity of the problem facing refugees and asylum-seekers who have already arrived in the U.S., especially those who find their visas have expired, and the importance of having a legal path to citizenship in the U.S.  On a theological level, I am hopeful that readers will learn something of the Reformed tradition that they may not have understood before, perhaps in its historically deep connection to refugee welcome.  Finally, I hope this book will teach everyone about ethical ways of reflecting on the problems people face who have been displaced by war and violence.  Before we close borders and vilify groups arriving at our doors, it is helpful to understand their challenges so that we can help find global solutions, as well as local ones.  Our lives together as community members living in peace, includes an ethical obligation to extend that peace to others, by sharing the polis in responsible ways for all.

Articles by Ellen Clark Clemot