Independence Day / LIRS
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
In honor of Independence Day this year, I’d like to lift up one of the most important ways that the United States government encourages, supports and pays for Christian ministry. Maybe you think the government doesn’t pay for Christian ministry. The government also pays for Jewish ministry, and Bhuddist if they’re in this particular business.
I’m talking about an organization called the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It was founded after the second world war to resettle refugees from Europe. Maybe they helped some of you; we have quite a number of WWII refugees in our church. For this holy work of refugee resettlement, the bulk of the money has always come from the federal government of the United States. LIRS is not alone; most of the resettlement work is done by faith-based organizations, and this being the United States, most of these are Christian.
When I worked at LIRS as a lowly secretary in the early 80s, (at that time the national headquarters was on Park Avenue South) they were mainly resettling Hmong refugees from Vietnam. The Hmong people had been fiercely pro-American during the Vietnam War, and therefore were in danger for their lives when we lost the war and withdrew.
So the way this works is: our government contracts with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and groups like it to fine homes, jobs and support for legally processed refugees, fleeing persecution in their home countries. There was a set price per family, paid by the government to the agencies.
Now here’s the Christian part of it: the government is paying us Lutherans to do exactly what Christ describes in today’s gospel: a offer a ministry of welcome, a cup of cold water to the stranger in Christ’s name. Christ commands us, Christ empowers us, to shelter and care for vulnerable people, to give food to the hungry and a home to the homeless. But maybe the most distinctively Christian thing about it is that this help was given across lines of race, religion, nationality – without reference to any category of human variety. Those things matter to many people; they have no meaning for Christians. Not for Americans either, who hold that all men (and women, etc.) are created equal. We all still have a ways to go on that.
So this work of refugee resettlement and immigration support is Christian ministry, and 95% of that ministry is done – not by the people sitting behind telephones at 360 Park Avenue South, but by Lutheran congregations all across the country, doing what we Lutherans do best: nesting. A congregation in, say, Nebraska, agrees to take on the support of a refugee family – I’m not talking about a long time ago; this is what LIRS is doing today, though now mostly with refugees from the Middle East) – A congregation agrees to support a family: finds them a place to live, assembles furniture, dishes, bedding, appliances. Stocks the fridge. Helps with enrolling in school, navigating the system, learning the language. In other words, offering hospitality unconditionally to the stranger in the name of Christ. Proselytizing is not allowed, of course. But among us, there is no need for any cheap proselytizing. We Lutherans are faith people, who know to show our faith by our works, and to let those good works speak for themselves. Who we are and what we do speaks more loudly than what we say. That’s pretty much how we Lutherans roll.
As I say, I worked at LIRS in the 80s. I am proud of the wonderful ministry that LIRS allowed our people to do, and, frankly, I am proud to have been a very small part of it myself at one time. This ministry continues today, and it is on my mind especially because of course the travel ban affects its work instantly and seriously, leaving perhaps hundreds of refugees stranded in the pipeline.
Nevertheless, on Independence Day I am proud to be an American, son of a country that, like this church, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of Middle Village, was built by immigrants. I hope we remember to cherish our immigrants and refugees here – as I say, it’s more than a few – and some of them are our most faithful servants of Christ. Right now, Trinity has immigrants and refugees from Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania, Estonia, Austria, Guyana, Antigua, the Philippines, China, Japan, Texas …
But no matter where we happen to be from, or when we came, we all came from somewhere and prospered here because of our own hard work, but also and inevitably because of the kindness of others. None of us did it alone. It is appropriate on the day when we celebrate our political independence from the British crown, that we also celebrate the material and spiritual dependence to which we owe everything that we have and are. By the grace and mercy of God we are all in this together.
So I think that today we can thank God that this American project has been fabulously successful, on balance a tremendous force for good in the world, and that it has certainly been good to us. We should thank God that we have shoes – millions do not. That we will have lunch today; millions won’t. That we have the freedom to seek and to know God according to the light of our own hearts; again, millions don’t have that freedom. There are still places in the world where Christians are persecuted and even killed for their faith.
So we have a lot to give thanks for, a lot of remember, a lot to love, and a lot of work still to do in God’s world. God bless America! God shed His grace on thee. And please God, help us to remember who we are, to be grateful for what we have, and to do cheerfully and faithfully what you have so graciously given us to do.