In spring 2017, the Calvin College Alumni Association, along with the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, approved a grant to fund a study titled, “I Was a Stranger: Intercultural Perspectives on Immigration and Refugees.” The study united faculty and alumni whose work deals with intercultural issues related to immigration and refugees. Their grant application explained that the group would read books, participate in relevant presentations, and listen to and share personal narratives of their experiences with the hope of becoming “more culturally intelligent and able to engage in good ways with cultural others, particularly refugees and immigrants.” The end goal would be to share their findings and work with a broader community to help increase intercultural education and capacity. The following article and additional online materials are outcomes of their work.

In the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, Calvin College was one of the most progressive schools in the U.S., opening its doors to receive Vietnamese refugee students and providing scholarships so that we could attend. We were all undocumented. Some of us didn’t know exactly when or where we were born. Most had no or very little English proficiency. Calvin College helped us prepare for careers and new lives in this country, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Three million people became asylum seekers in 2017—the biggest single-year total in the history of the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.  These individuals were displaced and forced out of their homes and ancestors’ land due to war, famine, and other catastrophes. They deserve the same chances and opportunities we have to rebuild their lives, provide for their families, feel safe, and become contributing citizens. However, many face challenges and barriers that prevent them from thriving. These boundaries are rooted in politics, the countries they came from, their beliefs, and the public’s misinformation.

“We realized American Christians and churches have much more to give than what we often think.”

For a year, between 2017–2018, a small group of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary faculty and alumni converged on campus to share our thoughts and concerns about immigrant and refugee issues, a mission funded by the Calvin College Alumni Association grant and the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship—and under the leadership of professor Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim ’88 and alumnus Tim Baldwin ’83. Some of the attendees (Bill Garvelink ’71, myself, Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout ’06, and Elvis Garcia Callejas ’13) have spent most of our adult professional lives—more than 100 combined years of experience—working with immigrants and refugees. We didn’t know each other until then, but we share a common thread connecting our lives of service to immigrants and refugees back to Calvin College’s liberal arts education and, for some, the much-cherished relationships with our professors.

How shall we then live?

As we explored how to best serve the influx of asylum seekers and help them to become self-supporting while stabilizing our own cities and communities, we discussed what we as Christians, and the church, were called to do. Immigration is a complex topic that is not only relevant during this political season—but is also here to stay. Jesus said it is inevitable that wars will continue until he returns (Mark 13:7-8). It is also inevitable that war causes the exodus of refugees. Thus, immigration, and immigrants, will continue through the end of time, whether we like it or not. How shall we then live in this broken world and be Christ’s hands and heart to love and serve immigrants and refugees, who are created in God’s image and loved as equally as he loves us?

As the group met three times during the year, we acknowledged the urgency. We studied why the massive number of people had to abandon their ancestral land to flee to another country. We marveled at their vast cultural wealth, their resilience, and the many services the refugees and immigrants brought and provided to the U.S. We resonated with the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice that refugees are “a blessing and not a burden.” We stressed the importance of treating refugees with dignity. We shared the best practices of our work, especially on leveraging others and churches who are called to advocate and to serve. We realized American Christians and churches have much more to give than what we often think. We reflected on our own desire to give back and how giving to others could help them to become significant contributors, not only to us, but also on a global scale.

Making a difference

And there was frustration and anguish. Somehow, despite our stressful jobs helping displaced people who had no foundation on which to rebuild their lives, we readily acknowledged that there was this satisfying joy because we could make a difference. Our lives are purposeful. We live God-inspired lives. We agreed that the more we blessed others, the more we were blessed. Bill Garvelink, after more than half a century working with immigrants and refugees and enduring the utter sadness of seeing tens of thousands of lives lost in front of his eyes, told the group: “I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”

In addition to Bill’s appointment as the ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his public service spans five decades and numerous countries. He directed, managed, and oversaw countless projects that directly involved hundreds of thousands of people via his worldwide humanitarian assistance and democracy programs. Bill credited Robert Bolt, a history professor who took him under his wing, and Stephen Monsma, who often talked about the importance of public service, with inspiring his life’s work.

Study group participants conversing
A few of the study group's participants: Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim ’88 (left), Tim Baldwin ’83 (center), and Stacey Wieland ’00 (right).

In 1977, when I started at Calvin College, there had already been an influx of Vietnamese refugees into Grand Rapids and new Vietnamese students on campus. The first and greatest blessing for me and other Vietnamese students was Mrs. Horton, our ESL teacher. She became our mom, our friend, our advocate. With the bloody war in our home country still lurking in our memory, the world seemed so safe with her in our midst. She treated us not as pitiful refugees, but instead she valued us. The dignity and the respect she gave us were critical for our growth. I brought this attitude to more than 30 years of serving immigrants and refugees.

Elvis Garcia’s years at Calvin challenged him in every way, but one of the greatest impacts on him was reading Engaging God’s World. The book, written by Cornelius Plantinga Jr., helped him formulate his worldview: that we all are a part of this world, and to follow Jesus’ message to love and do whatever is best for everyone. In his role as a counselor and public advocate for Catholic Charities of New York’s Unaccompanied Minors Program, Elvis helps children who are looking for protection in the United States after they have been forced to flee their countries due to violence or poverty.

“We live God-inspired lives. We agreed that the more we blessed others, the more we were blessed.”

Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout is a lawyer and the founder, executive director, and managing attorney for Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates. At one point someone in the group asked her, “Why do you want to do this? You could be making big bucks.” Sarah responded with a laugh: “I know. That’s a thing we ask ourselves regularly. We could pay off this student debt that is bigger than our home mortgage.”

Sarah’s social work degree from Calvin and her studies in Honduras shaped the direction of her profession. But it was her practicum at Cherry Street Clinic in Grand Rapids, working with mothers who were at different stages in their pregnancies, who had recently come from various countries south of the border, where Sarah learned about the issues and vulnerabilities these immigrants experience. This work created a clear path for her career and it continues to motivate her. It’s where she wanted to help, where she was needed, and where she could see that she had certain gifts and abilities.

A divisive issue

As Americans were preparing for the 2018 mid-term elections, with immigrants and refugees being one of the most divisive issues, particularly for Christians, Timothy Keller, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian churches in New York City, and the author of Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, wrote in an article in The New York Times (Sept. 29, 2018):

“So Christians are pushed toward two main options. One is to withdraw and try to be apolitical. The second is to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table. Neither of these options is valid. In the Good Samaritan parable told in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points us to a man risking his life to give material help to someone of a different race and religion. Jesus forbids us to withhold help from our neighbors, and this will inevitably require that we participate in political processes. If we experience exclusion and even persecution for doing so, we are assured that God is with us (Matthew 5:10-11) and that some will still see our “good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:11-12). If we are only offensive or only attractive to the world and not both, we can be sure we are failing to live as we ought.”

How then shall we live in this broken world, to be Christ-like with immigrants and refugees in our midst? Luke 12:48 comes to mind, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” What does this mean? Have we wondered what Jesus would do?