What is the church called to do in a time when there are an estimated 61 million refugees around the world? How are we to respond when distant neighbors made in God’s image flee homelands ravished by war, engulfed by pervasive poverty, and overwhelmed by oppressive regimes?
Since February of 2017, the faithful of Ardmore Presbyterian Church have facilitated a transitional house and hospitality initiative known as First Place. A recent Covenant Fund grant recipient of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, First Place is one of two approved Philadelphia residences that provides a fully-furnished apartment and community of support for the first thirty days of a refugee’s resettlement. Over the course of the last year, federal government agencies have referred to First Place 28 refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Guatemala, and Honduras. “We are kind of the initial caregiving people, the people who show the initial welcoming to the folks who come in,” remarked Rev. Sturgis Poorman, Parish Associate at Ardmore and Coordinator of First Place. “We try to show Christ’s love to the folks that come in, whoever they are.”
Ardmore Presbyterian Church has over a century’s worth of history of extending welcome to refugees, whether to new arrivals from Italy in the early 1900’s or refugees from Hungary in the aftermath of World War II. Initially funded by a bequest from the June Reid Estate, First Place builds upon their tenured witness of hospitality with a commitment to love those who flee contexts of oppression and seek refuge in the Ardmore community. The ministry also exists as a unifying mission for a congregation with a broad range of socio-political convictions. “There is no dissension, as far as I can tell, around the whole First Place,” noted Mary Ann Blair, member of the First Place Task Force. “It’s a uniting theme in the congregation and among the ruling elders of the church.”
This spirit of unity around a topic that often evokes polarized disagreements is largely due to the relational nature of the ministry that moves the refugee crisis from controversial and abstract issue to real people with names, faces, and stories. Ardmore has even hosted families with young children, with whom they can relate in a unique way. “I think [the launch of First Place] speaks to the realization of ‘who is my neighbor?’” remarked Rev. James Hodsden, Pastor of the Ardmore Presbyterian Church. “I think the congregation has been willing to jump behind it and be supportive because your neighbor is someone who is right there…People are willing to show hospitality to someone who is right in front of them.”
As the congregation has welcomed these distant neighbors now right in front of them, they have begun to share resources and foster community alongside diverse friends at the beginnings of a fresh start in a new country. “What is sort of exciting about First Place,” said Rev. Hodsden, “is that each family and each person that comes through is dealing with a different set of circumstances. We might discover that there is this person in the congregation would be a great resource for this particular [guest at First Place]. And the next person that comes in, this person over here in the congregation has wonderful resources that could help.”
Aware that each refugee receives a one-time government benefit of only $925, youth and adult members of the church have generously provided for various needs ranging from bikes to breakfast, networks for prospective employment to an all-utilities paid apartment. First Place has also partnered with a consortium of churches in Wayne to connect one teenager with a local family who has embraced him as their own as he completes his education at Radnor High School. “These folks are not just numbers. They have names,” Rev. Poorman shared as he read through a litany of those who have been guests at First Place.
In the midst of this global refugee crisis, we give thanks for the witness of First Place and the saints of Ardmore Presbyterian Church. Their faithfulness has modeled the teachings of Jesus with generosity and grace to their named neighbors from distant lands. As congregations and worshipping communities scattered throughout our presbytery likewise wrestle with the complexities of the ongoing refugee crisis, may we also dare to embody a common understanding of Jesus’ call to love the strangers among us. May we do so in a manner that transcends the polarization of politics and seeks the unifying mission of welcome to those longing for refuge and a new place to call home. After all, this just may be what it means to be the people of God in such a time as this.
Listen below to an audio interview: