by Michelle O'Donnell
[Reprinted with permission from the Divine Word Church Newsletter, February 2016]
Over the past few months, most of us have learned more about refugees than we ever knew before. By definition, a refugee is an individual who has fled his or her country of origin and who meets the United Nations’ criteria of having a "well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
Refugees have been around long before the crisis in Europe. In fact, dating back to Bible times, we see stories of Moses fleeing from Pharaoh (book of Exodus), Joseph being sold into slavery (Genesis 37), and even Jesus as a refugee after His birth, fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt to avoid a death threat from Herod (Matthew 2). We all have a heritage based on migration. Where would we be today if the doors of opportunity in our country had been closed to our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents in their time of need?
The parishes of Divine Word, St. Vitus, Immaculate Conception (Cleveland), and St. Paul Croatian have an amazing ministry to show love to refugees in very real, hands-on ways. Joseph House of Cleveland has the mission of "assisting refugees who come in need of shelter and a path to self- sufficiency, and helping those in need in our neighborhood community". We do this by providing affordable housing and a community of welcome to refugees and all who come in need. This takes place in our three -soon to be four- apartments where refugees live in Cleveland, as well as our Clothing Bank, which opens each week to provide clothing to local neighbors and refugees from around the world.
To date, over 100 refugees have lived at Joseph House since its beginning in 1997. During a one year time period, 300 local residents and 400 refugees came in to the Clothing Bank for shopping appointments. The work of Joseph House is joyous, humbling, and challenging at the same time. Each week we meet guests who come through our doors looking defeated, overwhelmed, out of sorts, and bewildered but after a short time, leave with looks of gratitude, amazement, and thankfulness, feeling loved and cared for.
We have the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus to people who are hurting in very real ways, suffering the loss of family members, careers, culture, familiar ways of life, and home. They have been uprooted due to no choosing of their own, and are starting over in a land they usually know very little about. Rarely do these refugees want to be here, so far away from all they know. They would give anything to hold their family members close or walk through the streets of their old cities without fear of violence. They want the same things we do- love, security, freedom, the opportunity to give their children a good life.
God is asking us to love and welcome the stranger. How can we respond to their needs? How can we possibly meet them in their time of crisis? To get these answers, we look to our source of hope and guidance, the Bible. It asks us to love. To treat others how we wish to be treated. To feed and clothe others as though it is Jesus we are seeing in front of us.
We cannot take their pain away- that is something no human can do. Yet we can walk along this path beside them, cheering them on as they put one foot in front of the other and try to start again.
So what might a refugee look like?
• They can look like the Sudanese man in his twenties who came in to the Clothing Bank looking for professional work clothes. He shared with us his goals of finding work, and told us that once he got a job, he would return and give us back all the clothes he was taking, plus more!
• They can look like the smiling man from Burundi who fled his country during a period of intense unrest. During his 20 plus years in a refugee camp, he met his wife and became ordained as a pastor. He now lives with his children and grandchildren in Cleveland, where he pastors a church on the West Side.
• They can look like the mother and her three small children from Tanzania who came to shop. As the family shopped, we realized that the nine year old daughter was quite the fashionista, trying on glittery shoes and high heeled boots and making us all smile and laugh. As they left, the three children went around to each volunteer and shook our hands. These are a few of the faces we have seen, the face of Jesus when he tells us in Matthew 25:40, "Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me." During this Holy Year of Mercy, may we open our hearts to how God may lead and use us.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this article was written in 2016, 132 refugees have resided at Joseph House. So far in 2022, 1,283 local residents and 649 refugees were served at the Joseph House Clothing Bank.