At refugee ministries, welcome mats withdrawn

As an anti-immigrant tide swells, churches find tasks of resettlement growing - but a shrinking willingness to help.

Before Oct. 1, the Rev. Ruth Morrison's ministry to refugees in Lewiston, Maine, consisted of low-key friendship gestures toward the city's 1,100 Somalis. She joined her new neighbors for dinner during Ramadan and helped furnish a coffin when a Muslim died.

But when Mayor Larry Raymond Jr. told the city's newcomers that "we need breathing room" in the form of fewer arrivals, Ms. Morrison pioneered a lesson in high-profile solidarity.

Red wagons were already lined up at Calvary United Methodist Church to carry children's gifts - hand-made Koran holders - to the neighborhood mosque on a Sunday morning. After a flurry of phone calls, 500 supporters turned out to transform a tiny youth procession into an interfaith show of unity with refugees.

Religious communities have long championed refugee resettlement as a moral obligation. They currently administer about three quarters of basic services, from subsidized housing to English language courses, in collaboration with government agencies.

But the landscape of refugee ministries has shifted since America pumped up its terrorist lookout. And as churches weigh what they can do, some cities are already saying, "No more."

The City Council of Holyoke, Mass., (pop. 40,000) urged the federal government in late September not to send a $960,000 grant to resettle at least 300 civil war-weary Somali Bantu over the next three years.

Lewiston delivered a similar message in the mayor's Oct. 1 open letter: "The large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all," Mr. Raymond wrote. "The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity.... Our city is maxed-out, financially, physically and emotionally."

Churches that used to spend just a few months getting families settled are now finding their tasks lengthened and complicated by tough economic times and the war on terrorism.

On one hand, the number of refugees admitted to the US has dropped dramatically - from 68,000 in 2001 to fewer than 24,000 in 2002 - as a result of tougher, slower screening procedures. The drop has left many church agencies wondering what to do with funding and staff earmarked for resettlement.

And yet those committed to refugee ministries have found they must provide far more for the families they serve. Fearing a cool reception from immigration agencies, thousands are escaping long-term camps to enter the US illegally or with visitor visas before applying for political asylum. This means sponsoring churches must support them for at least nine months as opposed to the conventional four - a prospect that adds $1,000 per person per month to church expenses.

"There's a sense of diminishing resources, but a desire to meet the growing need," says Naima Quarles-Burnley, refugee sponsorship developer for the United Church of Christ.

To bear the rising financial burden, she says, churches that once sponsored their own refugee families are commonly teaming up with three or more churches to stretch fixed or shrinking budgets.

Some denominations accustomed to settling refugees have, during the trickle of new arrivals, taken to lobbying the Bush administration to expedite more admissions:

Some of the world's two million-plus refugees have lived in camps for years as they await word on applications for amnesty, but of those so classified, no more than 70,000 may enter the US in a given year unless President Bush were to raise the legal limit.

Those restrictions thwart the mission of many refugee advocates, according to John Robinson Jr., associate for refugee ministry and government relations. "I have congregations wanting to resettle refugees and getting frustrated because there's no movement," he says. "These [refugees] are at risk of being slaughtered if they don't get a solution."

Yet others remain ambivalent about adding refugees to their communities. First United Methodist Church in Amesbury, Mass., for instance, decided this fall not to join five neighboring congregations in helping support a refugee family.

"It's got nothing to do with immigration or refugees," says the Rev. Les Pettit, pastor of First Church. "There's just a lack of interest in service beyond the four square walls of the church. It's more social stuff they're interested in doing."

And as churches inventory their stances on refugee ministries, more and more voices - even in magnet communities for refugees - are pointing out reasons to cap the influx at current levels.

Lewiston landlords, for instance, complain about too many people sleeping in units and problems with backyard chicken pens. Residents of both Holyoke and Lewiston have warned that the costs of services will lead to higher property taxes.

"It really is a crisis of faith," says Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan.

Although a faith-based coalition still intends to administer its resettlement grant there, the city council's expressed desire to reject it "was the easy political position to take. But I think about the question, 'What would Jesus do?' Would Jesus say to these people that there's no room, or he doesn't have any loaves? ... What are we going to do? Say 'no'?"

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