While the current debate over immigration policy is important, it can be a distraction from the reality that there are thousands of refugees already living in the United States, trying to make a start in a new country. Scripture clearly and unambiguously tells us that caring for them is a reflection of God’s heart: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19, NIV).
Giving money to relief organizations is important, but why not set an example for your children that involves more than an electronic funds transfer? Consider giving your time, your talents and your energy to this important cause.
But where do you begin?
The first step is to investigate whether there are volunteer opportunities for refugee ministry near you. Google offers a helpful map that shows every agency settling refugees in every state. It’s a big map that covers most of the country. (If you live in Wyoming or Montana, you may need to consider other options.)
Many states have at least one agency settling refugees, and most have several. The U.S. State Department contracts with these voluntary agencies (known as “VOLAGs”) to settle refugee families, providing them with critical assistance during their first 90 days in the United States, including food, housing, clothing, employment counseling, medical care and more.
There are currently nine VOLAGs operating in the U.S.: Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Relief.
Like any government agency, VOLAGs don’t always operate with the utmost efficiency. But don’t let that dissuade you. VOLAGs serve an important purpose, and a lot of that has to do with the volunteer base available to them. That’s where you come in! If there’s an agency near you resettling refugees, they likely need all the help you’re willing to give.
To get started, contact the agency near you and inquire about volunteer opportunities. It’s pretty safe to say that they’ll be thrilled to hear from you! Most agencies have volunteer information listed on their website.
While six of the nine VOLAGs are faith-based, you might be concerned that their beliefs won’t align with your own. In most cases, this should not be an issue. These organizations will take volunteers from a wide variety of faiths and traditions. You don’t have to be a Lutheran to volunteer with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, for example.
The primary mission of VOLAGs is to meet the basic needs of refugee families when they first arrive in this country, not to proselytize. Once you’re in touch with an agency, you will likely need to take part in some form of training or orientation with a group of other volunteers.
If it sounds intimidating to step out on your own like this, take heart. In the next article, we’ll look at ways you can get your entire church involved in the effort to #StandWithRefugees.