As global ambassador for Medical Teams, I have the distinct privilege of championing our Christian values both inside and outside the organization. In October 2021, I spoke at a symposium aimed at encouraging and equipping churches in Uganda to respond to the influx of refugees entering their country from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Afghanistan. Below is an adaptation of my speech that I hope brings into focus the worldwide refugee crisis, the work of Medical Teams in response to the crisis, and the Church’s opportunity to be engaged in ministering to the refugee community.
The global refugee crisis
To start, it’s important to understand the difference between a displaced person and a refugee. Internally displaced people (IDP) are those who flee their homes but stay within the borders of their own country; refugees flee their homes and cross an international border. Both the displaced and refugee must leave to save their lives. Whether IDP or refugee, neither wants to leave home but are often forced to do so. As such, the single term displaced can encompass anyone — IDP or refugee — who is forced to flee their home.
The numbers of displaced persons are unprecedented. In November 2021, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recorded the highest number of total displaced persons in history (since data on the displaced has been collected): 84 million. That number includes 48 million IDP, 26.6 million refugees; 4.4 million asylum seekers, and 3.9 million Venezuelans displaced abroad. What that number doesn’t include are the rising millions of Ukrainians displaced by the recent Russia conflict.
UNHCR estimates 35 million displaced people are children, and 1 million children are born in a refugee camp.
The average stay of a refugee in a camp or settlement is 17 years. The global refugee crisis is real, and it is significant.
Now, I think it’s obvious that refugees do not want to be refugees. They leave home to save their lives. They are not leaving for economic, social or political advantages. They want to go home. They want a normal life in their own culture, in their own language.
In Lebanon, I sat with Syrian refugees who shared that very sentiment. They weren’t looking to go to another country. They wanted to go back to work, back to school, back to their life. Although the Syrian refugees longed to go home, as someone once said:
“You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.”
I must confess that I don’t like the word refugee. Sure, it is easier to group people for description purposes, but it is dangerous because it makes them sound inanimate and non-human. We are talking about people. Real people with real names. People created in the image of God who are valued and deserving of dignity, respect, and care. At Medical Teams, we care, and we know their names.
Medical Teams and The Good Samaritan
It’s important for Christian organizations to be grounded in Scripture. At Medical Teams, we chose to be grounded in Luke 10:27:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.
The parable of the Good Samaritan immediately follows this verse in Luke. There is a Hebrew man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and Levite walk by the man and do nothing, but a Samaritan stops to help — a man from a different culture, religion and race. These are two people groups who had historical animosity toward one another, yet the Samaritan responded based on the need in front of him, not the who in front of him.
The meaning of the story is often taught as being about compassion or humility or love. And though that is appropriate, I want to think about the story of the Good Samaritan in a different way. Consider this: The Good Samaritan is a story of perspectives. The perspective of the robbers is what is yours is mine. The perspective of the priest and Levite is what is mine is mine. The perspective of the Good Samaritan is what is mine is yours.
Christian organizations must be grounded in Scripture with a perspective of what is mine is yours. Medical Teams takes this perspective to heart in our efforts to combat the refugee crisis — I could tell you story after story. Today, I want to tell you the story about Esther, a South Sudanese refugee I met at the Ugandan border.
Esther comes from the town of Yei in South Sudan. One day, Esther’s husband told her, “The bullets are coming too close to our house. Take a suitcase and go to Uganda to be safe. I will follow later and meet you in Uganda.” So, with suitcase in hand, Esther walked for three days to get to the border with Uganda. As she approached the border, she saw soldiers and didn’t know if they were rebel soldiers or government soldiers, or what they would do to her. She cried out to God asking Him to help her.
As Esther crossed the border, Medical Teams was there on the other side to give her a health check (as Medical Teams provides for nearly every refugee entering Uganda at health border stations). Medical Teams was the answer to Esther’s prayer. When the staff examined her, they quickly realized that Esther was nine months pregnant, and she was immediately brought to the maternity ward at the Medical Teams health facility nearby.
When I first met Esther a few days later, lying next to her was a beautiful baby boy. I asked Esther what she named the baby, and she responded, “I’m not sure yet. I think I will call him Able because God is able.” Esther is a strong, intelligent, and determined woman, willing to do what is necessary to save her life and the life of her baby. And Esther is only one example of millions of women just like her.
Esther has a name, and Medical Teams knows her name.
The Church and the refugee crisis
The Church has a choice — either to watch on the sidelines or fully engage with the global refugee crisis. How does our faith lead us to action? By seeking direction and wisdom from God, the Church can identify opportunities God has given to us, deciding to be participants in what God is doing in our world. Here are some ways to respond.
Pray, Learn, Support
First, pray. Pray for God’s wisdom and direction. Pray for the refugee, and pray for the Church. See this opportunity as a gift from God, and ask the Lord how you should respond.
Learn more about the ongoing and growing needs of refugee communities — they are all over the world — in Uganda, in Colombia, in Lebanon, in Tanzania, and even in the United States. Learn how you and your church or faith organization can get involved.
Support the ongoing work with your financial gifts. Your church or faith organization could pool funds together to help provide financial support. There are many items needed for refugee maternity wards and health clinics (hospital beds, birthing kits, etc.).
Offer spiritual and emotional support for staff on the front lines. For instance, in our Uganda program, we embed faith champions in every region to ensure team members receive spiritual enrichment and emotional care for encouragement and strength. Do you have a church connection in our international program areas to engage with our staff to provide spiritual care? Do you have facilities in our international locations we could use for training? How can your church care for our staff in the United States?
Strength in unity
In closing, let me share a story from the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda.
One day, I met with refugee faith leaders throughout the camp. There were Baptist and Pentecostal pastors, Anglican and Roman Catholic priests, and a Muslim imam.
I was curious how these groups of varying faiths interacted with one another and asked how they work together. The Muslim imam stood up and responded: “Mr. Joe, we are one here. Every morning we pray over the health clinic in the camp. We pray for the health care providers and the patients. We also helped one another to build our places of worship. The Anglicans, Baptists, and Catholics banded together to give the Muslims money to build our mosque. Then the Muslims, Baptists, and Pentecostals worked together to build a Catholic church. Everyone worked together until we all had our own places of worship.”
I walked away thinking that these faith leaders know what happens when you resort to conflict and the villainization of others. And they have chosen a different path. What a tremendous example for all of us!
We’re building cross-cultural, cross-denominational, cross-religious networks to actively support those affected by the global refugee crisis because what is mine is yours. Will you join us?
Brothers and sisters, God is at work in our world. His purposes will be achieved. The question is, are we ready to be an active participant in God’s plan or are we satisfied with simply being a spectator, watching from the sidelines? Let’s be bold and courageous. Let’s take a step of faith to be active participants in what God is doing right here, right now. And while God is working through us, He will also be working in us, transforming us to be more like Jesus.
As global ambassador at Medical Teams, Joe elevates the significance of faith in our organization. He ensures our Christian identity permeates throughout all we do, promotes the spiritual growth and well-being of staff and volunteers, and represents the organization to external audiences.