ORLANDO—Like others around the world, members of the Methodist Church throughout Florida were shocked and dismayed upon seeing the widely circulated photograph of a Turkish police officer cradling the drowned body of a Syrian toddler on Sept.2, 2015.
Fleeing civil war and certain death, the family of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi had crowded into a small, inflatable boat with fellow Syrian refugees, hoping to reach safety in Greece. A few minutes into the journey, the inflatable capsized and Aylan’s tiny body was washed up on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey.
|Omar Ali and Safi Musse, a refugee family able to flee Somalia amidst civil war in the country, are met at the airport by members of First UMC of Orlando. Shown on the left, church volunteer Joe Donoghue; on the right, volunteer Kathleen McLaurin and Gus Porter, a former refugee.|
Instead of dumping the newspaper carrying the horrific image into the recycling bin, the Rev. Tom McCloskey, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, decided to use it as the focal point for his Sunday sermon.
In the spirit of Proverbs 3:27, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to act,” McCloskey urged his congregation to do what it could to help the 62,223 refugees who poured into Florida last year and continued to seek sanctuary in the state.
A year later, a mother and son fleeing civil war and atrocities in Somalia arrived in Orlando where they were immediately embraced by the church.
Led by church members Joe Donoghue and Kathleen McLaurin, nearly 50 members of the congregation helped Safia, 52, and her 20-year-old son, Omar, with English lessons, budgeting and banking, resumes, job applications and interviewing skills.
“Today, Safia and Omar have a support system, are able to pay their own rent and are on their way to becoming self-sufficient,” said McCloskey. “It’s a good feeling to know you’ve helped transform the lives of people who would surely be dead if they’d remained in Somalia.”
The church is now preparing to work with a second refugee family and has developed a model for helping refugees that can be used by other churches in the conference.
The Rev. Vicki Walker, minister of missions and outreach for Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, can relate to the Orlando church’s call to action after seeing the photo of little Aylan Kurdi.
|20-year-old Omar Ali is shown enjoying a visit to the Orlando City soccer stadium. Nearly 50 members of First UMC Orlando have worked to aid Omar and his mother, Safia, with English lessons, budgeting, job applications and interviewing skills.|
“Images like these make us question how we can help, how we can pursue our mission to make God’s love real,” she said. “We have a biblical imperative to help strangers.”
While on a Journey of Faith Cruise in Greece and Turkey last year, Walker came face to face with the fear and hopelessness facing political refugees.
“I was sitting in an outdoor café in Turkey when I saw a woman with her young son.
“The little boy was holding a sign that read, ‘We are from Syria. Can you help us?’ And the mother was holding her passport and looking very afraid,” said Walker.
Using her smartphone, Walker snapped a photo of the mother and son as a reminder of God’s sacred imperative to help others.
Walker called the brief encounter a “serendipitous confluence of events that led us to start our ministry to help refugees.”
On Dec. 7, 2015, FLUMC Bishop Ken Carter released a letter on the need for Christian hospitality toward refugees.
“Our hearts break over the violent terrorist attacks in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and the awareness of the increasing number of vulnerable families, women and children who are fleeing Syria in search of safety,” wrote Carter.
“We also are reminded that the re-settling process of a refugee in the United States often takes 18 to 24 months and includes a screening process,” Carter continued. “We take seriously the need to balance security with hospitality.”
Shortly after the bishop released his letter, a woman working with resettlement camps in Florida stopped by the Hyde Park church to discuss the challenges facing refugees.
“I felt God was helping us identify ways to help these people,” said Walker. “There are hundreds of people just waiting in refugee camps for a chance to resume their lives. These are regular people fleeing for their lives and just need a new start and a helping hand.”
The Florida Department of Children and Families is the official resettlement agency for the state but depends on help from religious organizations including Catholic Charities, Coptic Orthodox Charities, Lutheran Services and Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services.
After contacting these organizations, the church began assisting four refugee families from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, including people who served as interpreters for the U.S. military and now face persecution in their countries for aiding America.
|A surviving refugee child now enjoys life with new friends at the Children of the World Preschool in St. Petersburg. Established in 1988 by United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, the program is serving children whose families fled from Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. Photo by UMCM Suncoast.|
At the Children of the World Preschool in St. Petersburg, community relations director Lauren Wolf has daily contact with the most vulnerable refugees: children.
The preschool for children age 2 to 5 was founded in 1988 by the nonprofit United Methodist Cooperative Ministries to serve the flood of refugee children from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos following the fall of Saigon.
Today, the preschool has students whose families fled from Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean.
“You can pick out the newcomers right away,” said Wolf. “They look lost and terrified. But in a couple of weeks, these same children are playing side-by-side with children from other countries. They may not speak the same language but there’s a universal language all children seem to speak.”
Many of the children have lived through horrific events at home followed by miserable conditions in refugee camps.
“Our mission is to create a joyful, loving, safe environment for these children who have been so traumatized during their young lives,” said Wolf.
However, she said the same government that permitted their entry into the United States often makes their lives more difficult.
“I’ve seen refugees harassed by law enforcement agencies, even to the point of placing a 6-year-old in handcuffs,” said Wolf. “I think the policies toward refugees need to change. We become stronger, more robust and more vibrant with every new person who joins our community.”
Clarke Campbell-Evans, director of missional engagement for the FLUMC, agrees.
At the FLUMC Annual Conference in June, he plans to present a resolution to inspire other churches to follow the lead of UMC Orlando and Hyde Park.
“The reason we’ve had hundreds sign the resolution is a direct result of today’s headlines,” said Campbell-Evans, referring the current political environment encouraging the United States to limit refugees.
“I’ve been asked why in the world Christians would want to step into this political quagmire to raise a voice for hospitality and justice,” Campbell-Evans said.
The answer, he said, can be in found in Matthew 25-35: “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.”
“From the Mariel Boatlift (the mass emigration of Cubans to the United States in 1980) to those fleeing political violence in El Salvador in the late 80's, to the welcome of Haitians in the 1990's, the Conference has had a long history of offering sanctuary and welcome to those in need,” he said.
Walker said that is why she is now urging members of her congregation to not only join her in helping refugees, but also in helping to shape governmental policy regarding refugees.
“It’s really scary to me, but right now there’s a bill in the Florida House of Representatives that would completely withdraw Florida from the federal refugee program,” she said. “I urge everyone to contact their representative to protest this bill.”
House Bill 427, sponsored by Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, asks Florida to join nine other states in withdrawing from the federal program to assist refugees.
“These people are not a threat,” said Walker. “There’s too much fear and an unwillingness to embrace others with love and acceptance.
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico.