Congratulations to Wilmot Collins as he begins his term as mayor of Helena. His journey as a refugee from Liberia to the mayor of Helena is representative of thousands of stories of immigrants whose courage, integrity and talents have blessed the countries they now call home.
His story reminds me of two refugee stories from the Bible. The first is the story of Joseph, whose brothers because of jealousy, sold him to Midianite traders. Joseph became a slave in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers. Joseph was falsely accused and thrown in prison, but eventually rose to a position of power and became the top minister of agriculture. When the famine struck in Israel, Joseph brothers came to Egypt looking for food and were shocked to meet their brother Joseph. Joseph forgave them and invited his father, Jacob, and his brothers to come live in Egypt. Joseph, the refugee, saved his family from disaster and helped his family who in turn became refugees fleeing famine and hardship. It’s a refugee story that’s been told and lived through the ages and is still happening today. It is a story of hope and compassion.
The second refugee story I think about is when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee from Bethlehem to Egypt because God warned them that Herod was slaughtering all children two years old and younger. Herod feared a rival king was born. Refugees throughout time leave their homes because they want the same things we want, a safe place to raise families, food, and employment. Jesus’ and Wilmot’s stories remind us that many refugees leave dangerous, life threatening situations and when they immigrate become valuable citizens in the places they settle.
The director and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee services, Linda Hartke, came to Helena to celebrate Wilmot’s installation as mayor because Wilmot serves on the national Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Board, the organization that helped him and his family to resettle here. She gave local pastors and church members an update on what’s happening with immigration.
The current administration cut the immigration ceiling in half from 90,000 to 45,000. Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran Immigration Services, the two largest agencies who work with the Department of Justice to place refugees here in the U.S., will be closing sites that are willing to resettle refugees because there are not enough refugees accepted into the U.S. The Wall Street Journal reported that 5,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. during the months of October, November and December of 2017 compared to the previous year’s placement of around 25,000 refugees.
Even though it takes an average of three years to go through the rigorous vetting process as a refugee, harsher screening processes are now in place. Most refugees have to have family members already here in the U.S. to qualify for immigration. If a new community wants to be a host community the new regulations require that community to be able to place 100 refugees.
The good news is that many refugees, like Wilmot, are thriving. More than 23,000 immigrant residents call Montana home, paying more than $122 million in taxes. Nationally, 50 percent of immigrant heads of household own their own homes.
Over the past 15 years, Muslims have made up 32 percent of all refugees admitted, while Christians have made up 46 percent. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be incarcerated than the U.S.-born population. Not one refugee who came through the vetting process has been responsible for terrorist or bombing attacks in the U.S.
Thirty six percent of U.S. born children of refugees are college graduates. Over 50 percent of refugees are women and children. So what has caused the recent fear of refugees? The facts clearly don’t support this irrational fear of refugees.
There are over 92 verses in the Bible that talk about welcoming the stranger, the foreigner. One of those verses is Leviticus 19:34 ,“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. “ Most all of our grandparents and ancestors were refugees and immigrants from another country who sought a better life here in America. Now it’s our turn to welcome the refugees and to advocate for their acceptance and resettlement here in our state and nation. Jesus said, “For as you do it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.“ Compassion and welcome, not fear and shunning, is the response that Christians and people of faith need to show toward refugees.
The good news is that now Congress and the White House are in serious negotiations about a comprehensive immigration policy. Part of that discussion is how or whether to legalize nearly 800,000 undocumented “Dreamers,” children brought to the U.S. fleeing their homelands. We who are Christian and people of faith need to contact our legislative representatives and let them know that we support compassionate immigration and refugee laws.
We are a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees like Wilmot who are shining examples of people who have so much to offer as citizens. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were welcomed in Egypt as they fled the terror and bloodshed at home. We can be the “new Egypt” that welcomes families to our country. That is my prayer and hope, and I know it is for many of you too.
The views expressed in this column are the personal reflections and theology of Pastor Brad Ulgenes, not St. John’s Lutheran Church as a whole. Pastor Ulgenes has served there for the past 5 ½ years. Pastor Ulgenes is married to Elaine. They are parents to three grown children. He is a huge Minnesota Vikings fan and enjoys his Norwegian Culture, his church, and beautiful Helena.