Friday, February 10, 2017

On starting a refugee resettlement center in Northwest Arkansas

I thought this might be a good time to offer an update on Canopy NWA and GSLC. Fair warning, it's kind of long. But I'm in favor of transparency, and information, so here you go!

One year ago February 2016, Canopy was mostly a glimmer in our imaginations. Donna Davis and I had a couple of conversations with Frank Head of Catholic Charities about refugee resettlement, and we'd hosted a couple of preliminary, high energy meetings about next steps.

Then God got in the fray, and the story got busy.

By late February-March, we were filling out the paperwork to register Canopy NWA as a non-profit. We had a growing group of ecumenical and community leaders interested in developing Northwest Arkansas as a refugee resettlement center. And although at first they were surprised by the call, we finally convinced Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service that we weren't just calling them because we wanted to host a refugee family--we wanted to establish a new center for refugee resettlement in the state of Arkansas!

Over the next months, my role as pastor and my role as a founder, then acting director of Canopy, took a variety of twists and turns. It is a LOT of work hosting representatives from a national organization like LIRS and setting up meetings with community leaders (all the way up to and including the governor of Arkansas). But it was worth it, and actually benefits pastoral ministry greatly. One of the ministries of pastors is to read the community as if it were a sacred text, to know the needs of the parish. Conversations with educators, mayors, representatives, ESL instructors, business leaders, medical professionals, human services, non-profit representatives, all of this opened my eyes as a pastor to the tremendous vitality of our region, and gave me greater awareness of some of our most pressing needs.

During the summer, we submitted the application to LIRS and the State Department to become a refugee resettlement center, and in August that application was approved. We were assigned the resettlement of 100 refugees for the fiscal year beginning October 1st, 2016. This is when things really got serious. We received some significant grants, laid out a funding plan based on resources from LIRS, our community, and individual donors.We hired Emily Crane Linn, our resettlement director, plus a case worker, an employment specialist, and a community relations manager. 

I shifted to the role of board chair and we officially appointed a board of Canopy NWA.

Small update to my congregation: It's probably worth all of you knowing that although you see me on television from time to time, and I'm definitely a spokesperson and lead organizer in Canopy NWA, I'm not compensated by them. It's a labor of love. The benefits are manifold, but they're not monetary.

In September, GSLC made space for Canopy to office in our building. They currently use two office spaces just down and across the hall from Heather Pratt and myself. If you're here at church during the week, it's very likely you'll meet one of their amazing staff people, or one of a host of volunteers coming and going daily, or even one of the refugee families who have already arrived.

Canopy rents the space from us, and also uses the church van. You're likely to see the van driving around town taking new families to doctor's appointments and such. It's unlikely Canopy will stay housed in GSLC permanently, as they may at some point need to move into their own space. But in the meantime, it's a joy to share space and ministry with them.

None of us could have imagined the energy that has gathered around Canopy through the fall and now into 2017. The photo at the top of this letter was from last Thursday, a town hall meeting hosted by Canopy NWA at Grace Church. Hundreds and hundreds of people attended. The church was so full people had to walk considerable distances because the parking lot was full.

There's a reason Canopy NWA has become more than just an organization that welcomes new Arkansans. It's become a movement because a) the people of Northwest Arkansas have big hearts, and b) things in our nation have become difficult and complicated for immigrants and refugees. 

This should really not be a surprise to Lutherans in North America. We are a faith tradition of immigrants. And frankly, this country hasn't always treated Lutherans that well when they've arrived.

As a result, Lutherans have developed hands and hearts that work hard to welcome the stranger in our midst. We know it's a biblical mandate to do so, but Lutherans are peculiar in their focus on providing a voice for immigrants, and a new home for sojourners. LIRS is the second largest refugee resettlement organization in our country. Given that Lutherans are a relatively small religious group in the United States, this is remarkable.

But Lutherans play well with others. We work ecumenically. So Canopy, though affiliated with LIRS, is not a Lutheran organization. It's a ministry of refugee resettlement. Our leadership includes representation from Roman Catholicism, Presbyterianism, evangelicalism, Lutheranism, unaffiliated, and more. 

The other way GSLC currently intersects the work of Canopy NWA is via our co-sponsorship team. We have a large team of GSLC members who have directly sponsored a family of new Arkansans. They helped set up their apartment, care for their children while the parents are in ESL classes, take them to the Islamic Center for prayer, and serve as first friends for this amazing family. The co-sponsor team welcomes new members. You need to go to the Canopy web site and use their tools to do a background check, etc. Take a look and see if it interests you. It's an incredibly rewarding form of volunteering.

Some of you may be surprised that we've invested so much energy and time (I as a pastor, we as a congregation) developing an ecumenical non-profit focused on refugee resettlement. Or maybe not, I'm not sure, but I've had lots of people ask. So let me offer some insight into why we do this, and why I think it's from God.

First, historically this is just what Lutherans do. Many of the hospitals in the United States were founded by Lutherans. Lutherans have started nursing homes, schools, colleges, social services agencies of all kinds. In fact the largest social service agency in the country is called Lutheran Services in America!

We do this because we believe that faith is lived out in daily life, and part of the work of the church is to stand in the gap and provide the resources for the needs of communities that might otherwise be overlooked or neglected. So, we saw there wasn't direct refugee resettlement happening in Arkansas, we know there is a global refugee crisis, so we listened to the Holy Spirit and said, "Maybe we can and should do this."

The second reason we do this is because it's a fundamentally Christian and biblical thing to do. One of the most repeated refrains in all of Scripture is, "Welcome the sojourner in your midst, because you were once slaves in Egypt." This is not a side project of the church, one small ministry among other larger ones. It's a core practice. And sometimes to do such core practices well, you need to step way beyond small measures, and venture out into actually building and creating new structures. 

If you live in a community as amazing as Northwest Arkansas, you have an even greater responsibility to step into this role offering sanctuary for sojourners, if you can, because you can offer a safe and welcoming place for those seeking sanctuary and a new home. And since Arkansas is also the second fastest growing Latino population in the country, we have a calling from God to be good neighbors to new Americans, new Arkansans among us. We are called to offer sanctuary in the literal sense of that term. It's part of our commitment to welcome.

Finally, we do this because we know it's not about us patronizing and helping those needy people over there. It's about mutuality. We gain as much as we give, if not more. We welcome new friends. In the process of developing Canopy NWA, we have deepened our relationship with the local Islamic Center, Temple Shalom, and many other interfaith communities. We are building bridges and breaking down the walls that divide us.

God gets into the mix in this work. I happen to think most of the time, to be the church, you have to welcome an imagination capacious enough for the grandeur of God. It's too small of thing to be a club or community. We are a light to the nations. Through our partnership with Canopy, our community knows who we are, and knows we are committed, as one of our neighbors recently characterized us: "the message of GSLC to me-- be too busy with ever-better love to bother with hate."

Thank you to everyone who has been partnering in this ministry. Thank you to all those who have been praying for refugees and immigrants. We're in this together. To learn more about Canopy NWA, visit:

For the presiding bishop's statement on the travel ban, visit: This letter includes links to some of the social statements of the ELCA on immigration and refugee resettlement.

To learn more about LIRS:

See you in worship. 9 a.m. contemporary, 11 a.m. traditional. 10:15 lecture on the pastor of the Reformation, Johannes Bugenhagen.

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