I Wish I Could Help Everyone, but I Cannot - a Response to the Refugee and Immigrant Problem

Long ago city planners figured out a way to make moving around the downtown blocks of Minneapolis / St. Paul in the dead of winter. Between many of the office buildings, hotels, parking garages, and entertainment venues is a maze of bridges and walkways where gloveless, coatless, hatless pedestrians walk from heated car to heated cubicles and heated retail stores.

Those same skyways provide a mobile home for many of the cities’ homeless. In the last week, I opened the door to the stairwell on the top floor of a parking garage and pushed the door into a woman squatting on the floor bundled head to toe. I apologized, we exchanged greetings, and I walked past her, wishing her well. When I left the stairwell, a man in his 30s hobbled toward me on his crutches. “Sir, can I have a minute of your time,” he said to the man and son who walked behind me. The dad declined. I didn’t have to say anything; the man on crutches didn’t speak to me. In return I said nothing to him

Over the last sixteen years living in Minnesota, I can count on one hand the number of times I have given money to someone on a street corner or in a skyway. There have been many opportunities, and I routinely feel bad each time I move past someone with an outstretched hand. Simply, I don’t have the resources to help every person who asks of me or every person I encounter. My time in the Minneapolis / St. Paul skyways is limited to a few stints a month. I suspect those who travel them daily can tell of similar encounters on a more regular basis.

Rarely does a week go by that I do not receive an email or phone call from a missionary looking for financial support. These are good people doing unenviable but necessary tasks, making contact with persons they often do not know asking for money to do kingdom work. The emails tell of orphanages and wells, seminaries and church plants, medical clinics and potential Bible translations. In the phone calls I hear passionate voices hoping to bring the gospel to locations where the people of the land may never hear the good news of Jesus Christ. I want to take on financial support of every missionary who contacts our church, but we simply do not have the resources to do so. I really don’t like those phones call that end with, “Sorry, I wish we could.”

Office phone rings.

Caller: Is the pastor in?

Me: This is one of them. How can I help you?

Caller: I have four kids and I am looking for some help…

I listen and ask questions trying to determine the need. Our church has been very generous to the people of our community through its benevolent fund. Our church family gives to our deacons and pastors the privilege to help as we become aware of needs. But that benevolent fund is not the widow’s oil jar. It runs dry. Some of the phone calls come from those who abuse the system. I don’t like putting the voice on the other end of the line through an interrogation to determine the need, but what choice do I have? If we give away to the scammer, what will we have for the genuine? As of today, a few hundred dollars remain in our benevolent fund. I suspect it will be empty by the end of February, and then I will tell all the callers, “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything to offer.”

Twenty years ago a group from our church in Michigan ministered in the mountains outside of Manilla in the Philippines. Like people I’ve met in villages in India where cattle dung is the fuel for cooking, these folks in the jungles possess little. The suffering moves even the hardest hearts. Early in the morning a beautiful dark hair, dark eyed girl latched on to me. She could not have been older than two. She was an orphan. I held her as morning passed to afternoon and cried over her as I her put her down when we left the remote village. I wanted to take her home with me. I knew Brenda, Michael, Jennifer, and Emily would love her. I knew our church would embrace her. But bringing her to our home was not an option for reasons both legal and logistical. If alive, she’s in her early 20s now. She, of course, has no memory of me, but I remember her. I trust the Lord has cared for the orphan because I could not.

As a Christian, I want to help people. I want to “give a cup of cold water in Jesus’s name.” I want to obey God when he says, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).” But sometimes circumstances, concerns for safety, and limited resources do not allow me to do what my heart wants me to do.Where I do have opportunity because of the resources and burden God has put before, I hope I act consistent with my claim of Christianity.

All of this brings me to the recent order from President Trump initiating a temporary immigration ban from places where jihadist conflict has torn countries apart or where jihadist ideology is the position of the ruling government.

I wish every little girl in a Filipino jungle village had the joys and opportunities of my two twenty-something girls. I wish every woman in a Minneapolis stairwell slept in a warm bed like my wife does. I wish every refugee could experience religious freedom, economic security, and political sanctuary. But my hopes are not realistic. The United States cannot help every refugee or hopeful immigrant. Security and resources do not allow for it. The executive branch led by the president must direct resources where they can be most effective and must exercise due diligence to insure the safety of the citizens they are charged to protect.

Because the American way of life provides amazing opportunities to the weakest, the poorest, and the least to become so much more than what some call “life’s lottery” has delivered to them, America remains a destination filled with hope for those outside our borders. Where the citizenry can help, the citizenry must help. However, the citizenry will not be able to help in every circumstance, a regrettable reality in a sinful world. Where our elected government can wisely help refugees and the oppressed across the world, we citizens should promote the help. However, I see nothing in the Scriptures that requires the US government to act beyond its resources or its national security. Nothing.

The role of the government is different from the role of the local church and the individual Christian. We are not charged with the protection of the citizenry (Romans 13). We are charged with the delivery of the gospel and the offering of good works. From refugees to the homeless, I hope we will take the resources God has given us through our labors, “doing honest work…so that (we) may have something to share with anyone in need (Ephesians 4:28).”

If the President’s order bothers you at some deep level, then do something about it, but do something more than write a letter to your congressman or post your rant on social media. Search the internet for a refugee organization you can support. Skip the coffee shop for the next three months and send them the proceeds. Walk the skyways and sit next to the panhandler and share lunch with her. Talk about life and talk about the gospel. Initiate an ESL class at our church building for a handful of the thousands of non-native English speakers that live within miles of our church building. Let the president do his job while he leaves us alone to do ours.

So why should I get involved in this discussion? Two reasons: (1) I want to help the sheep not to bite each other. I saw that over the weekend, and I genuinely wonder how members of the same church can greet each other on Sunday morning, let alone worship together or serve alongside each other; and (2) I hope to call us to wrestle with the Bible on the subject at hand. Like a grappler, sweat and struggle with what God says and what God doesn’t say. Embrace as our own the mandates he has placed on us and resist the penchant to mandate what might feel right to us but is not mandated by God. May God give us grace to know the difference.

As always, I welcome your feedback and any suggestions you might have for an upcoming Lunchtime Musing.