They may be different church denominations, but when you ask Jack and Nathan what moved them to come to the aid of refugees, they both quote the same verse:
“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”
It’s this common belief that has brought Jack’s church, St. Joseph Catholic, and Nathan’s church, St. Francis Episcopal, together with a network of local congregations in the tiny community of Norris—20 miles outside Knoxville—as Norris Ecumenical Refugee Support Ministries.
The purpose: to make welcome baskets for refugees.
Contents of welcome “baskets” collected by St. Francis Episcopal church for refugee families from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Venezuela last summer.
Jack first launched the project several years ago, when he and a friend, both retired, were seeking something of value to fill their time.
“I said we ought to be doing something with our time to help somebody else,” he says.
The pope had made a recent appeal to help in the growing refugee crisis, so Jack connected with Bridge to see how St. Joseph could help. Because the distance of Norris from where most refugees were being resettled made it difficult for the church to directly work with families—offering transport, English tutoring and other support—Jack began organizing welcome baskets for new refugee arrivals to provide needed supplies for starting up housekeeping. Case managers at Bridge provided a list of needed items: small appliances, kitchen supplies, toys for children, towels, dishes, even furniture. They also included $25 gift cards to Target, Wal-Mart or Kroger.
The list would be posted on the church’s bulletin board, with items written on sticky notes for members to take and purchase. Because the needs ranged in value, the projects allowed everyone to participate regardless of income, Jack says.
“One of the most impressive things I’ve found out about is how generous everyone in our church really is,” he says. “Everybody in the church participates.”
Nathan had been serving as a volunteer with Bridge for about a year when one day, visiting St. Joseph’s with his in-laws who are members, he noticed the sticky-note list. He held a meeting with Jack and volunteered St. Francis to join in the ministry.
“I made a sign, and we had just an overwhelming response,” Nathan says.
After posting about the effort on the church’s Facebook page another church, Norris Religious Fellowship, asked if they could join the project too. Then Norris Methodist Church signed on. After a collective meeting at the local Golden Girls Diner, Norris Ecumenical Refugee Support Ministries was born.
The churches provide new items only—“We want to give our finest, not just leftovers,” Nathan says—and everyone joins in the fun.
“There’s this pent up demand for helping others,” he says.
Bridge case manager Katie Willocks says the collective of small churches has contributed thousands of dollars worth of items needed to help refugees make a new home.
“The cost of providing these essentials often goes beyond the money we have to spend for housing, utilities, food and other things refugees need to start their lives here,” she says. “This partnership of churches has been a huge help for these families, who are coming to the U.S. with absolutely nothing.”
“One family gives every kid $5 and sends them to find something on the kitchen implement list,” he says. “And it’s not uncommon for someone to stick a $100 bill in my hand.”
At a time when conversations around refugees and immigration get heated and politically charged, members are looking for an opportunity to saying something else, Jack says.
“We want refugees to feel that they’re wanted here, regardless of what message they’re getting from other places,” he says. “Our parishioners are intent on sending the message: ‘You are welcome here.’”