Willow Grove Presbyterian Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, has a long history of opening its arms to people coming to this country for a new start. In the 1970s, the church welcomed a Vietnamese family escaping the trappings of war in their homeland. Relationships with this family, according to pastor Cynthia Cochran-Carney, are still strong today.
Now the church is preparing for an opportunity to host a Syrian family seeking to escape the devastation of war. While the American public is locked in debate over whether to open doors for those seeking to start anew, it was never a question for Willow Grove.
“I think the people here are quite sure what it means to sponsor a family even though we’ve only gone through the initial steps,” Cochran-Carney said. “The congregation really feels our calling comes from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. If people are hungry, need shelter and come from a place of conflict like Syria, we want to be part of a larger community effort to welcome them.”
Cochran-Carney, working with other interfaith leaders, has formed a group called the Refugee Assistance Partners (RAP). The group has met several times to find out what they have to do be a host site.
Church World Service (CWS), an interfaith agency supporting refugees, immigrants and other displaced individuals, opened an office in Jersey City last February to begin the process of resettling Syrian families and others in the state. CWS staff began meeting with the interfaith group to put the wheels in motion.
“There are nine agencies that have been approved by the federal government through which refugees can come into our country. Refugees are subject to the strictest form of security screening before they are allowed to enter the U.S. with extensive background, security and health checks,” said Cochran-Carney. “The resettlement process is run by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. By the time a family is approved and comes to the U.S., they have been vetted and have gone through multiple background checks. CWS is one of the approved agencies.”
Volunteers have collected items for families including soap, toothpaste, school supplies, backpacks and cleaning materials. All supplies are being stored at a CWS facility in Jersey City.
“The local school district is onboard with this and the mayor was at a recent meeting,” said Cochran-Carney. “People are very receptive and we are hopeful that in the next few months we will be organized with Presbyterians and Episcopalians leading the way to bring families into our community.”
Cochran-Carney says her church would be willing to be a primary congregation involved in hosting a family.
“With the Vietnamese family, there were multi-generations coming with that group so the congregation helped prepared for an extended family,” she said. “That doesn’t seem to be the pattern this time. But I would think a family of four or five would work. We are a smaller church of about 100 members but we are very committed to missions and believe we are called to be involved in this.”
The church is also a host church and founding congregation for Family Promise, providing emergency shelter for local families experiencing homelessness.
In follow up meetings with CWS leaders, some people have come with questions, but no opposition.
“Some people ask, ‘How can you be sure you aren’t harboring terrorists?’ and the CWS director has explained the process of bringing refugees here,” Cochran-Carney said. “Part of what they realize is that the people coming to New Jersey aren’t the people we’ve seen on TV. These are people who have applied to come here as far back as a year ago.”
Approval may take a while, but once approved, CWS leaders say it will only take three weeks for a family to arrive.
“We will continue to meet and find out what we need to do to bring a family or two here,” said Cochran-Carney. “But we’ve gotten our feet wet and will work now to see what resources we have in terms of drivers, tutors, those involved with job placement and development and find out what people are offering in terms of time and ability.”
The PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues has created a resource page around the “We Choose Welcome” campaign with theological and advocacy information for those wishing to study the issue and participate in action on behalf of Syrian refugees.
More information on the church’s response to the Syrian crisis is also available at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance website.