As I sat across from my friend in the coffee shop, telling her about the work I was doing at a refugee resettlement organization, I couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. The whole conversation started because she had been looking for ways to get involved with refugees in the city and wanted to talk to me about my organization and any volunteer opportunities that I knew of.
As I heard her explain what type of opportunity she was hoping for, I felt my jaw clench and my heart sink, knowing exactly how the rest of the conversation would probably go. She wanted to evangelize the refugees, teaching them English with the Bible and taking them to church. I explained that my organization—and all of the other refugee resettlement organizations—were government funded and mostly religiously unaffiliated, so we couldn’t have volunteer opportunities for people who only wanted to do those specific things.
I explained that the volunteer opportunities offered through those organizations would still give her a chance to invest in the lives of refugees throughout the city and teach meaningful and necessary life and language skills. I told her that she can be open about her faith but just needs to let the families lead the conversations. I tried to explain how investing in their lives with true relationships would build a strong foundation that a relationship with evangelistic strings attached couldn’t build.
And then the words came tumbling out of her mouth: “What’s the point, though, if I can’t talk to them about salvation? Who cares if they have jobs if they don’t have Jesus?”
I felt somewhat speechless, but I did manage say the words, “I care and you should, too.” This wasn’t the first conversation I’d had with a fellow Christian about working at non-religious organizations, but it certainly was the most blunt and the most discouraging. She didn’t mean for the words to sound so harsh, and I don’t even think she realized just how harsh they were. But she spoke from a place of misunderstanding about our call as Christians and even a misunderstanding of who the vulnerable populations are and what their lives look like.
Somewhere along the way, Christians have missed the mark. Telling others about the gospel is obviously important—crucial, in fact. But we can’t neglect the physical needs of people or the chance to build true, lasting relationships with them. Richard Stearns, founder of World Vision and author of The Hole in Our Gospel, writes, “A church that’s lost its voice for justice is a church that’s lost its relevance to the world.”
If we aren’t willing to engage in justice, meeting people’s physical needs, they will not be open to us engaging with them spiritually. For refugees and immigrants, widows, orphans, trafficking victims, the poor, and more, justice is having access to food, education, jobs, safe homes, to name a few things. The gaps in our gospel become especially evident when we interact with international communities. It’s not practical for refugees to learn English vocabulary from the Bible. They need to learn English to survive, especially in a society that isn’t always willing to accept them as they are. They need English to work, to navigate our social systems, to get driver’s licenses, and, then maybe, hopefully, to eventually read the Bible.
When we focus only on the eternal and miss out on what’s happening here and now, we portray a Jesus that cares only for a person’s soul and not for the physical person he created for this earth. But that isn’t who Jesus is at all. Jesus healed people, and he spent time building relationships over multiple meals and deep conversations. With his disciples, his conversation about faith was not one-and-done. Jesus continued to invest in their lives both spiritually and physically, even when they still didn’t get it. He was patient and spent time listening and learning about the people around him. Jesus offered hope to people because they saw that his words matched his actions—that the grace and love he talked about in his parables and sermons matched what he was living out in his life every day.
Christians have multiple opportunities to show this gospel to refugees, immigrants, the poor, the addicted, and more—but we refuse to take opportunities that don’t fit in with our own agendas, with our own need to be the spiritual heroes. How many chances to serve and love others have we missed because it wasn’t what we wanted? But if we put our own agendas aside to see who these people really are and what they really need, God will work through us to enact justice in our world and to show others hope in Christ.
What would happen if we went into the home of a refugee family and the only words we spoke about our faith were, “I am a Christian.” Would our actions and attitude show them who Christ is? Would they be able to see the hope and life change offered to them through the gospel?
Salvation is the crux of the gospel, but Christ’s life reflects that our lives should be about both justice and grace. Without both, we miss the fullness of the life God is offering to us and to others. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).