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Retired megachurch pastor discusses flaws in refugee resettlement, ‘amoral’ evangelical attitudes

Retired megachurch pastor discusses flaws in refugee resettlement, ‘amoral’ evangelical attitudes

Protesters gather outside the Trump Building at 40 Wall St. to take action against America's refugee ban in New York City, U.S., March 28, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Retired megachurch pastor Dan Scott has witnessed the transformation of Nashville, Tennessee, over the course of the past few decades as the city has taken on thousands of refugees despite the objection of many of the area’s white Christian conservative residents. 

Scott, the former pastor of Christ Church Nashville who retired last June, was among many who harbored some concerns when an influx of thousands of persecuted refugees from Nepal was resettled to Nashville in the early 2010s. 

But now that the Nepalese refugee community has successfully integrated into the city and many of them have become members of Scott’s old church, Scott sees their resettlement as a blessing to his town. 

“It wasn't the refugees themselves that were resented,” he told The Christian Post in a recent interview. “It was the idea that the government had brought these people in where there was no infrastructure.”

Scott discussed the ramifications of President Donald Trump’s executive order signed last year giving state and local government authorities the ability to block refugee resettlement in their jurisdictions. 

He opposes the new order, contending that it is an attempt to simply “pass the buck” on the refugee resettlement issue to somebody else to “make the decision not to help people.” 

“Obviously, no nation can take in all of the suffering people of the world,” he said. “But the Old Testament repeatedly talks about this. You leave the gleanings in the field and you treat the foreigners among you with respect and make sure that they're fed and all that kind of stuff.” 

Although he did hold some concerns about Nepalese refugees being resettled in Nashville years back, he did not outright object to their resettlement in his community like others did in his area. 

He did, however, question the logic of resettling thousands of non-English speaking Hindu and Buddhist refugees in a city that lacked an adequate public transportation system and other infrastructure necessities to help ease resettlement. 

Not only did the city lack expanded mass transit, but neither the federal nor the state government provided the refugee community with English language classes or any kind of cultural readiness training, he noted. The refugee communities needed help learning things such as setting up bank accounts, getting car insurance or even flushing a toilet. 

“For me, it was bewildering like it was for a lot of people,” he said. “Why would you bring 100 Nepalese and put them in a housing division that's just a few blocks from the church who didn't have any ways to get anywhere? They didn't know how to use a flush toilet. It felt to me like the government kind of dumped these people without giving them the infrastructure.”

“We don't have mass transit, for example, in the area. So people have to have cars. The Nepalese had been living in refugee camps. For some of them, they were in camps as long as they had lived. And so to figure out how to use a car, how to get a car, how to get insurance, it was just a massive thing because even if we got them jobs, how would they get to work?”

Scott recalled his time as an immigrant to Quebec, Canada, in the 1980s. During that time, he said that the Canadian government offered him language classes for nine months. But in the U.S., he said nothing similar is offered by the government. 

“In [the American] situation, if private people don't step up to the plate like churches, the folks are thrust into an urban situation they don't understand economically or any other way,” Scott said. “Plus, they've got to work immediately to support themselves and don't have the opportunity of learning the language.”

‘Selling point’

Scott said that his complaint at the time is also what he used as a “selling point” to the thousands of members at Christ Church. He urged the congregation to get more involved in helping the Nepalese community. 

“I told the church that if we don't step in, what's going to be the plight of these people?” he recalled. “It's not just humanitarian, though our faith commands us to do that. Our long-term interest is to see that they learn the language and enter the workforce of the area.”

Although his church helped welcome about 60 Russian refugees in the 1980s into the congregation, Scott said the church was not as open as he would have liked to nominally Muslim Kurdish refugees who resettled during the late 1980s and 1990s. 

“Had we been aggressive about welcoming them here and getting involved in their life, we probably would have had real success and incorporated lots of them into the Christian community at that time,” he contended.

“But a whole generation grew up and we didn't have that infrastructure. So we lost that opportunity. I think some of us were just determined not to see that repeated with these Buddhists and Hindus that were coming in and we reached out to them and great numbers of them have become Christians.”

The church came alongside the Nepalese community as some men in the community were in such dire straits when their six months of government aid ran out that they were discussing the possibility of prostituting their wives.

“Because they felt like there was no other way and this was something that their culture, I guess, would have permitted them to think about,” Scott said. “We were really alarmed at that. We just doubled our efforts to try to convince them to learn legitimate trades and to get them into legitimate lines of work.”

According to Scott, Christ Church offered the Nepalese community free language classes, while many church volunteers served in social worker-like capacities to help the Nepalese get acquainted with life in the U.S. and stay out of debt. 

Because of the church's discipleship, around half of some 300 Nepalese refugees the church served have become Christians, he said. Additionally, the Nepalese community in Nashville has transformed economically. 

“The last several years have seen a real dramatic lift of Christian Nepalese communities and their economic viability,” he noted.

“These were people at the bottom of the economic level. They were reliable workers in kitchens and cleaning situations. They didn't take drugs, they didn't cheat, they didn't steal stuff. And they quickly proved themselves to be very reliable workers. Coming behind them were their children who were getting a good education and being prepared for prospering in other ways.”

Christ Church often partnered with other faith-based groups like Catholic Services to provide help to the community. 

“It created an odd amalgam of people who were acting out of a kind of left-of-center sort of humanitarian way with very conservative Christians who were trying to get food and shelter for their folks,” he said. “People made common calls across those barriers for the sake of helping the folks. That's become more complicated as our political situation is radicalized in the country.”

In today’s political context where Nashville continues to be a very conservative town supportive of an administration looking to limit immigration and refugee resettlement, Scott said, only a few churches have some sort of ministry with refugees. 

He added that churches — even conservative ones — that do have refugee ministries are being called out by anti-refugee critics in the area for being “liberal.”

‘Tribal loyalties’ and the Gospel 

“The people who have called for this reaching [to refugees] have been penalized and painted as if their motivations were liberal rather than just sheer response to the Gospel,” Scott said. 

“[These are] really good people that otherwise are the salt of the earth. [T]hey don't know where the line is that separates those socioeconomic tribal loyalties from a Gospel that promises a day when every tribe, kindred nation and language are included in the God in the Community of Christ.”

Scott explained that as Christ Church has filled up with more immigrants from around the world, there has been a level of white flight from the congregation and community. 

“[I]n the church, some of it was a response to racial complexity that begin to occur in the church,” he said. “Outside of large metropolitan areas, white Americans have generally not been used to being parts of groups that minorities predominate. There's a tipping point. And when they reach a certain percentage, you start seeing a lot of white people leave and it's just reality.”

Scott has identified as Republican for most of his life. However, he has become “disillusioned” due to the fact that some of his clergy peers have embraced what he calls “amoral” and “unethical” behavior, attitudes and postures on immigration.  

“It has shaken me to the core,” he said. “I'm 67 years old and I can't imagine what kind of fruit we're going to reap from our children and grandchildren watching this and coming to the conclusion that our stated values were never our real values.”

Although he understands that there are limitations that some local communities face that may inspire officials to want to block resettlement to their towns, Scott said he can’t get behind Trump’s order giving local officials that right. 

“Had the president been warm and forthcoming and compassionate in a statement and say, ‘We want to receive as many people as we can but some of our local areas are really strained right now so I'm going to give them a say in this,’ I don't know how we could fight against that,” Scott said. 

“But that's hardly the spirit in which it was presented. It seems to me they are saying ‘You states that want to deal with [refugees], we're sending you all the problems and you can handle it. Those of us that don't want to, we're going to continue to make sure that we don't have the burden of it.’”

Scott fears that the conservative evangelical community is embracing behaviors “unhinged from any principles of the Gospel.”  

“[We’re] separating utterly our sense of social and moral life from Scripture and our stated beliefs about the Gospel,” he warned. “That shakes me and I don't know exactly what to do about it.” 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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