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The Power of Welcome

People are often surprised when I say that I’ve been blessed by refugees my entire life, but it’s true. 

Sometimes it’s because I grew up in small-town Iowa, and they assume that Iowa is as white and unicultural as a state could be. 

Sometimes it’s because they, too, grew up in small-town Iowa and didn’t have a similar experience. 

Sometimes it’s because they grew up in other states or countries and can’t recall any personal experiences with refugees that they see as blessings in their own lives. 

Sometimes it’s because the narrative of the refugee as one to be feared, pitied, or treated as a project, rather than an individual, made in the image of God, who fled their country due to well-founded fears for their life and liberty is such a strong narrative globally that it’s endured even after the world came together 75 years ago to say “never again” to closing our doors on those seeking refuge. 
Yes, I have been blessed by refugees my entire life, and this blessing began because of the power of welcome.
In 1975, thanks to the leadership of Republican Governor Robert Ray, the U.S. government changed its refugee resettlement program policies, allowing for large groups of people to be admitted for resettlement. Before that time, only individuals or families were eligible. 
Why did Governor Ray advocate so strongly for this change? Because he received a letter from representatives on behalf of the Tai Dam people, asking that the State of Iowa become a place of welcome for their people. He answered this plea with a hearty welcome initially to 1,200 Tai Dam refugees, with more welcomed later.
He did so because his commitment to follow Christ compelled him to see the suffering of the people fleeing Southeast Asia, and to use the gift of refugee resettlement as a means to alleviate some of that suffering.
But he didn’t stop there.

In 1979 Governor Ray was watching a PBS documentary on those who were still escaping Southeast Asia by cramming onto small, fragile boats adrift in the South China Sea by the thousands, and he decided Iowa would, once again, provide welcome. However, by 1979 all countries worldwide had closed their doors to refugees from Southeast Asia, including the United States. Governor Ray didn’t let this deter him, and immediately reached out to the Carter administration, stating that if the U.S. reopened its doors, Iowa would double its number of refugees. 

Vice president Walter Mondale, upon seeing Governor Ray’s passionate advocacy and commitment to welcome on behalf of Southeast Asian refugees, invited Governor Ray to join him in Geneva, Switzerland for an international conference on Southeast Asian refugees, hosted by the United Nations. Governor Ray gave an impassioned plea to those gathered, a plea that ended in a standing ovation from those gathered, and led to the United States government deploying Navy ships to save people at sea and agreeing to resettle an additional 168,000 refugees from Southeast Asia in the U.S., while other countries worldwide began opening their doors to refugees as well.
But he didn’t stop there.

In 1980 Governor Ray advocated for the Refugee Act of 1980, which formalized refugee resettlement in the United States.

By the mid 1980’s, over 9,000 people seeking refuge from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were welcomed to the state of Iowa, but tens of thousands more were rescued at sea, resettled in other states in the U.S., resettled in other countries, and both national and international refugee resettlement policies were implemented or changed, at least in part due to the work of a Republican governor of Iowa. 

Similar to the end of World War II and the Vietnam War, we are at another precipice where the power of welcome can make a lifesaving difference for hundreds of thousands of people. Will we follow in the footsteps of Governor Ray and use the power of welcome to alleviate some of their suffering? Will we open our hearts and minds to the blessings of Christ-like hospitality...blessings that not only affect those giving or receiving the hospitality, but blessings that ripple through time and spread to distant lands? 

Church World Service (CWS) is hosting a “Together We Welcome: A National Faith Gathering to Strengthen Support for Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants” conference November 7-11, 2021. For more information or to register for the conference, click here.
Help welcome Afghan refugees. Bethany Christian Services is looking for church and other community groups to participate in supporting refugees integrating in the U.S. through transportation, English tutoring, housing coordination, friendship, and more. Please contact Kendra David at for more details

Image: Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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