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How Your Children’s Ministry Can Reach Refugees

Here’s how your church can answer Jesus’ call to welcome refugees in your own neighborhood.


If you look up synonyms for the word sanctuary, you’ll find this word — church.

The church is called to be a sanctuary for the broken, the wounded, the disaffected. Jesus calls us to provide sanctuary for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoner…the refugee.

“For I was a stranger and you invited me in…” (Matthew 25:35).

The Refugee Crisis

It’s no understatement to say that the refugee crisis is one of the biggest issues facing the church today. Over 21.3 million people worldwide fled their homes for sanctuary in 2015, according to David Murphey in a Child Trends report entitled “Moving Beyond Trauma: Child Migrants and Refugees in the United States.” The report reveals that currently, 51 percent of the world’s refugees are children.

“Right now, the ministry of refugee resettlement is in a moment of crisis, and we need the church to faithfully respond and stand with refugees,” says Jennifer Smyers, Director of Policy and Advocacy Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Service (CWS) in Washington, DC. CWS is a faith-based organization that works hand in hand with churches around the country to welcome refugees.

One Church’s Response

One church that’s responded to stand with refugees is Sanctuary Church in Providence, Rhode Island. On a chilly Saturday morning on February 4, 2017, my daughter, Abby, and her husband Devin Arinder joined over 100 people to surprise refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan with home goods, money, and messages of love. Watch the video about this outreach.

Sandra Martin, who heads up the way Sanctuary Church serves refugees in their area, was instrumental in coordinating the outreach. The event, according to Martin, “was meant simply to encourage and love on a group who was and is feeling discouraged, rejected, and unloved by our country.”

These 100 people personally embellished “You Are Loved” cards that read “A gift to our refugee friends from Sanctuary Church.” They packed bags and then headed out like a goodwill army to deliver more than just home goods to 203 refugees—children and adults. Sanctuary Church lived out Jesus’ direction to “love your neighbor as yourself” as they reached out with a handshake, hug, smile—a welcome in the name of Jesus.

For Martin and her family, serving refugees started long before Sanctuary Church’s outreach, which she admits is just “in its infancy and very, very simple.”

As part of Martin’s volunteer work at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the major intake for refugees resettling in Rhode Island, she mentors a Syrian family. Her family has also mentored three orphaned Congolese brothers.

What Keeps Churches From Serving Refugees

Churches that want to reach out to refugees may need to overcome a few internal obstacles, according to Martin.

Stifling Fear

“As far as serving, loving, helping and providing refuge for refugees, as Jesus Followers our calling is pretty clear.” Martin asserts. “I have a difficult time with fear or safety as an obstacle. I don’t see where Jesus anywhere said we were to protect ourselves first, then serve and love only when we feel safe.”

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision US agrees with Martin. World Vision has been serving millions of refugees since the Syrian crisis began in 2011.

“Christians have been called by Jesus to love our neighbors, to care for the needy and to welcome the stranger,” Stearns says. “Some eighty percent of the refugees fleeing Syria are women, children, and the elderly who have lost everything. They are the victims of brutal terror, not the perpetrators and they are worthy of the compassion of our nation.”

No Time

Martin concedes that time could also be an obstacle for churches to minister to refugees. But she admonishes, “Meaningful help almost always happens in tandem with relationships, and that takes time and commitment. Committing to one event on one Saturday morning is easy, but going back and visiting those families again, as a neighbor loving another neighbor, is where the real work and love begins.”

Lack of Curiosity

“Perhaps the beauty and secret mystery to the whole experience is a learning attitude,” says Martin.

“What do other people from a completely different place and experience have to teach me? I may not be able to travel to Syria right now, but I have eaten all kinds of Syrian food when visiting the family I mentor. I’ve learned that Syrians value education so highly, that even in the midst of war, children would walk to their math tutor, passing dead bodies on the roadside with the sounds of bombs echoing around them, just to be sure they continue to learn. I’ve learned that Syrian people are some of the most warm, kind hospitable people in the world. One couple who visited a Syrian family during our outreach was struck by the Syrian father’s story, he said. ‘To us, our neighbor is our family, and our neighbor is anyone living seven houses in all directions. These people are our family.’

Unaware of Refugee Neighbors

Contact your local “voluntary” refugee resettlement organization to find needs in your area. Go to There are all kinds of ways to volunteer from mentoring to tutoring English as a Second Language.

How Children Can Serve

Because children’s ministers have a heart for the next generation, I asked Martin, “What impact are you seeing that serving refugees is having on kids?”

“Well, I don’t personally subscribe to the notion of volunteering to serve ‘so that my children will see how fortunate they are,’ ” she says. “That is not very authentic, now is it? However, it is a very common reason families serve with their children. As Jesus followers, we are called to LOVE our neighbor and provide when others have a need, to actively welcome and love the refugee, foreigner, the outcast, the prisoner, the widow, the orphan. This is not about us.”

Serving refugees together as a family has many rich lessons. In reference to Sanctuary’s service project, Martin says, “It was beautiful to hear people tell their stories about their visits to refugees’ homes. Everyone was universally taken aback and humbled by how they felt ministered to by the refugee families! It’s a mutually beneficial experience. Each human being has something beautiful to offer. Jesus calls us to relationships, and there is something so powerful about that. So, perhaps these things are the most important things for our children to learn.”

“I think that a lot of stuff you hear is not true…what people say, what you hear on the news,” says Martin’s son Ben, 17, about his experience that Saturday. “Also, about countries that have refugees; people assume the countries they are from don’t have any infrastructure, or they’re severely impoverished, but that isn’t necessarily true…they’re just normal people caught up in this situation. It was a very eye-opening experience.”

What Your Church Can Do

Organizations are experiencing cutbacks and layoffs. They desperately need churches to partner with them in all kinds of ways.

“Our deep, mutual relationships with local congregations include congregation members volunteering to welcome refugees at the airport when they first arrive, set up and furnish a refugees’ first apartment, prepare a meal for a newly arrived refugee family, and teach refugees English, cultural orientation, how to use public transportation, and more,” says Smyers from CWS. “Congregations also host donation drives and help educate community members about who refugees are, with refugees sharing their powerful journeys and stories of resilience.”

In partnership with CWS, Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, works in collaboration with a local Islamic Center and a Temple in a team they call Refugee Assistance and Friendship Team (RAFT). They’ve provided fully equipped apartments and assisted in virtually all aspects of support of the families by facilitating employment, transportation, medical and dental care, English and math tutoring, budgeting, mentoring, and friendship.

Take small steps, Martin says, “in creating opportunities for groups of people to fall in love with the real work of serving others in meaningful and lasting ways.”

In her church, some people have already committed to mentoring individual refugees. And others have dropped by to visit refugees they met during the Saturday event.

­Whatever you do, it may not be easy. Reaching into another culture with language barriers can be uncomfortable. Listen to 12-year-old Ripley Martin’s advice: “It is awkward.”

But it’s worth the discomfort. “I didn’t really know about refugees,” says Ripley, Martin’s son. “They’ve lost a lot of things in their life. They’re generous and kind. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t know they were refugees. They blend in pretty well.”

“In child-speak—they’re just normal people,” says Ripley’s mom.


Organizations that serve refugees are in dire need. “Right now, World Vision needs church leaders to call their congregations to respond long-term to this crisis,” says Angela Appleton, Director of Corporate Engagement for World Vision in Federal Way, Washington.

Here are highly reputable organizations with needs your church can meet.

Looking for more outreach ideas? Start here!

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