Evangelical leaders from across the United States gathered in Naperville a year ago to discuss a response to the global refugee crisis created as millions of Syrians were displaced by turmoil in their homeland.
A year later, many of those same pastors and ministry leaders attending the Naperville summit joined with international aid agency World Relief in sending a letter to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence urging them the reconsider the dramatic reduction in refugee resettlement included within a presidential executive order.
The initial communication published this week as a full-age ad in The Washington Post was signed by 102 leaders, including the lead pastors from two Naperville congregations – Ron Zappia of Harvest Bible Chapel and Dave Ferguson of Community Christian Church – and evangelical leaders, including senior pastor Bill Hybels and author Lynne Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington.
“While we are eager to welcome persecuted Christians, we also welcome vulnerable Muslims and people of other faiths or no faith at all. This executive order dramatically reduces the overall number of refugees allowed this year, robbing families of hope and a future,” the letter went onto say.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, which organized the Naperville summit, said the idea for the 2016 meeting held at Community Christian Church was to shed light on the refugee situation and focus people and groups who are doing good work in the field.
He said the response was overwhelming, with more than 500 evangelical leaders in attendance and thousands more viewing online. “I do think it was the beginning of a conversation,” Stetzer said.
A similar response came from evangelical leaders this week as the number people signing onto the letter to the president grew from the original 102 to include more than 4,500 names.
“Christians have always spoken up for the vulnerable. I hope the Trump administration hears our concerns that we have a safe and compassionate refugee policy — and our confidence that we can continue to do both,” Stetzer said.
He said a refugee is the worst way for an individual to come into a country because the process takes 18 months to two years. “We have, ironically, extreme vetting already,” he said.
World Relief President Scott Arbeiter said it’s not new for the church to use its voice on behalf of those who have none. The letter from evangelical leaders was coordinated by World Relief.
“It is part of our historic call and identity. And for nearly four decades World Relief has helped thousands of churches and tens of thousands of volunteers express that call by welcoming refugees,” Arbeiter said.
World Relief, which has offices in Aurora and Wheaton, is one of nine agencies nationally authorized by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. Arbeiter said his group has helped resettle 300,000 refugees in the last 40 years.
“We recognize we live in a dangerous world. Security matters,” Arbeiter said. “We do not need to accept the notion that security and compassion are mutually exclusive.”
Arbeiter said he was heartened a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upheld the temporary block on Trump’s ban on travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“So many families, already separated for long periods by terror, war and persecution can now continue the process of being reunited,” he said.
The ruling, he said, does not address the reduction in the number of refugees to be admitted from 110,000 to 50,000, some of whom could come to towns in DuPage and Kane counties.
Over the past 10 years, Aurora has received more refugees from countries named in the executive order than any other city in DuPage or Kane. Only slightly fewer have gone to Wheaton.
Since 2007, Aurora has seen 467 refugees arrive from Iraq, Syria, Somalia or Iran. Wheaton, which has significantly fewer residents than Aurora, has seen 445 refugees during that time frame from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan or Syria.
Refugee resettlement in Naperville is significantly less than nearby communities, with only 24 refugees arriving from Iraq and four from Iran in the last decade. There have been none in the last two years.
Susan Sperry, executive director of World Relief’s Aurora and DuPage offices, said when placing refugees locally, the agency considers the location of existing family, the cost of living and employment options.
Should the numbers increase, local organizations will be available with open arms.
Michelle Iskowitz, communications and event manager for Loaves and Fishes Community Services, said her agency requests a photo ID, proof of residency in DuPage County and a signed statement regarding income eligibility to provide services. “We do not ask if a new client is a refugee,” she said.
Laura Devine-Johnston, Indian Prairie School District 204 assistant superintendent for elementary education, said for any student to succeed, the first priority is for a student to feel welcomed and safe. She said that is what the district strives to do.
Groups like the district’s Parent Diversity Advisory Council also help by offering insight in developing programs and activities to make families feel more at home.
Individual schools like Cowlishaw Elementary in Naperville annually host a culture fair where families showcase their country or culture through performances, traditional attire and ethnic foods.
A recent fair at the school spotlighted, among the many cultures, the food and dance of Iran.
“I think it is our most popular event; everyone seems to love it. It’s a night that everyone can be proud of who they are, where they come from and share their culture with others,” said Willa Brinke, co-president of the Cowlishaw PTA.
Cowlishaw is one of the most diverse schools in the District 204. Of the ethnic makeup, 36 percent of students are Asian, 28 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black and the rest American Indian or mixed race backgrounds.
“We have students from all over the world and a lot of different languages are spoken by our students,” Brinke said.
She said the PTA established a special team to provide welcome packages with information about the school and the area. In addition, the PTA recruits ambassadors from countries all over the world.
“We can hopefully match a new family from abroad with an ambassador that comes from the same country or speaks the same language,” she said.
That type of teamwork is possible because the PTA executive board is equally diverse.
“Sometimes cultural differences make it hard for people to approach someone. By having a cultural diverse board, we hope we can reach and represent every family,” Brinke said.
Read more at Naperville pastors urge Trump to rethink refugee limits.