Kent Annan considers the current world-wide refugee crisis “a chance for the church to shine.” His new book You Welcomed Me will be released on November 27, 2018 to encourage churches to help and welcome refugees. Annan spoke with Christian Courier about this upcoming book in August. In his words, “This topic is actually a spiritual topic. We can decide how hospitable – or not – to be.”
He recognizes that people may have a variety of involvement already with helping refugees, and he aims to meet readers at these different places and encourage them to take a welcoming posture and to take thoughtful, caring and sustainable actions to help others, based on the “incredible welcome” and grace that God offers to each person.
‘Best way possible’
Annan is director of humanitarian and disaster leadership at Wheaton College in Illinois. He leads a newly formed M.A. program as part of its Humanitarian Disaster Institute, which has been created to help equip the church to respond effectively to disasters in the world: “We want to help in the best way possible.” The first 18 students began this program in the fall semester of 2018. You Welcomed Me will be used in a course at Wheaton, and a six-week, video-based adult education curriculum is in development to accompany the book for churches.
After writing Slow Kingdom Coming about justice work (this book was highlighted in the July 25, 2016 edition of CC), Annan found a new topic to write about as immigration and refugee issues became an increasing part of the North American conversation in the media.
“Churches seeing the importance to welcome refugees didn’t used to be very controversial,” he says. While there are many topics worthy of research and attention, the issue of welcoming refugees and immigrants as a church felt personal to Annan. His first position after university was working with refugees in Europe, and the people he worked with became friends.
Joy in connection
Annan recognizes that there are internal challenges to be overcome before reaching out to others: “It’s natural to not want to step toward pain,” and trauma is almost invariably part of refugees’ experience. His encouragement is that Jesus’ love enables us to step toward pain and closer to joy: “it isn’t a simple joy. It’s the joy found in connection, helping someone in their time of need, as a church.”
Annan quoted Simone Weil’s comment that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” noting that it takes generosity to pay attention to the experiences of other people and to be open to knowing the hard and the beautiful things they have experienced. This openness requires seeing others as whole people, not “flattening” these stories for political purposes. “When a topic like this becomes a national debate, the inevitable danger is that people’s stories become used as tools.” People who are immigrants or refugees “are not perfect victims, and they are not saints.” We step in at the right place when we recognize our shared humanity: “That could be me.” Empathy is risky because it involves identifying with the people we are trying to help; “there is some imagination required” in the command to love your neighbour as yourself.
The ‘long welcome’
An initial step toward someone in need is often accompanied by an adrenaline rush. There is joy in “the initial burst of compassion,” and we can also be shaped in deeper ways as we participate in the “long welcome,” a phrase Annan often uses, based on Eugene Peterson’s book about discipleship: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Annan acknowledges that there may be times, during this long welcome, where the work is not as rewarding, where relationships become more complex than we expected, and when generosity is not met with appreciation. These are opportunities for discipleship and deeper formation, a chance to grow in love and in receiving grace.
Annan highlighted the importance of taking rest and practicing Sabbath to sustain humanitarian efforts for the long welcome. He also spoke of the importance of finding joy along the way to avoid compassion fatigue. He gave the example of working or volunteering alongside people you can be joyful with, sharing laughter and encouragement. He recalled a street party he attended in Atlanta in which refugees told their stories in the form of poems while coffee and food from Refuge Coffee Co. was shared (learn more at refugecoffeeco.com).
Joy can also be found in generosity. Annan recently met someone who had been a refugee from Myanmar. When she first arrived in the United States, the home that had been prepared for her included a vase of freshly-cut flowers on the table. This “touch of joy” was still meaningful to her many years later. The extra effort that went into this offering likely yielded joy for the giver, as well as the receiver.