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Sue Lani Madsen: Offering ‘radical hospitality’ to refugees helps all involved

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

’Tis the season of hospitality rooted in hospitality denied, as Christians retell the story of a young couple seeking shelter in Bethlehem. Welcoming refugees is still a touchy subject.

President-elect Donald Trump in a recent speech described the car and knife attack at Ohio State by a legal immigrant from Somalia as “yet one more tragic reminder that immigration security is now national security.” Residents on the southern border and even in the Yakima Valley feel under attack from illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. These are serious concerns.

How we defend our borders and administer immigration policy is critical to our personal and national security.

How we welcome and assimilate legal immigrants, including refugees, also affects our security.

The international crisis of populations displaced by violence isn’t going to be solved by immigration, legal or illegal. Most refugees just want to go home. According to Megan Tragethon of the Refugee Care Collective in Portland, less than 1 percent of these international refugees seek permanent resettlement to other countries. Her organization focuses on hospitality to those who have passed all background checks and are cleared to travel to the U.S. as legal immigrants.

Tragethon was a speaker at the City Advance Pacific Northwest annual meeting. City Advance is part of International Renewal Ministries, a Christian movement dedicated to “building the church to impact the community.” Recent events drew me to the breakout sessions on refugees, where Pastor Brandon Kindelberger of Discovery Church in Boise described the radical outreach that has nearly doubled his congregation.

“We don’t preach a social justice gospel, we just preach the gospel,” said Pastor Kindelberger. The pastor is an Idaho native who leads a conservative church in a conservative community. His volunteers meet refugee families at the airport and surround them with radical hospitality from the start. His church of about 300 now includes 140 legal refugees, mostly resettled through World Relief Boise.

Security and hospitality are not mutually exclusive. Radical security and radical hospitality both have a role to play. Radical hospitality is more than a basket of soap, shampoo and bedding. It’s about building real community relationships. Radical hospitality changes the heart.

The Refugee Care Collective in Portland also practices radical Christian hospitality. The RCC recruits churches in the Portland region to meet the practical needs of refugees with housekeeping welcome kits, and then goes beyond. Their volunteers are asked to commit to a minimum of eight months. They answer questions on the details of learning to live in America, from handling kitchen appliances and identifying junk mail to how to find day care and a job.

Johnna Nickoloff of World Relief Spokane confirmed they also seek to link every arriving family with committed volunteers, and they need more. Good Neighbor Teams usually organized in cooperation with local churches make a minimum six-month commitment to stay connected to families. Women Who Stand is another program to support refugee single mothers struggling to get oriented. “World Relief can only do so much,” Nickoloff said. She encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to sign up for orientation through the World Relief Spokane website.

The newest members of the Discovery Church congregation in Boise come from primarily Muslim countries, but the church volunteers are not focused on evangelism. Faith is central to culture in the refugees’ home countries, and expressing faith provides a connection. When refugees feel the love flowing out of their hosts and ask why, volunteers answer honestly – they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Radical hospitality is the goal; transformed lives is the byproduct.

“We are very liberal in the fruit of the spirit,” said Pastor Kindelberger. “We can do the social side any day, but have to do more than be the salt and go beyond to provide the living water.” Refugee outreach has drawn political progressives and Christian skeptics who want to work with the resettled families, and they too are hearing and seeing the gospel in action. A self-described agnostic Buddhist park ranger has been an eager volunteer. He’s struggling with his own discovery that the members of this politically conservative congregation are not the bigots he thought they were. Radical hospitality builds more than one bridge in the community.

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at or on Twitter @SueLaniMadsen.