I spent the first 26 years of my life in the Bible belt of the United States, where most of those around me were Christians like me. When I went to Jordan to teach English, it was my first trip out of North America. What I initially believed would be a cool opportunity to experience another culture turned out to be a pivotal point in my life, career, and faith.
I taught at a Summer English Immersion Program in a school in the city of Madaba, Jordan and, in a different city, I also worked with Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the grandchildren of those forced out of Palestine decades ago. In Matthew 25:35 Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” For the first time in my life, those verses came alive for me.
One day after one of my English classes, one of my students, Mahreen, walked over to my desk. “Mr. DeVon,” she said, “I wasn’t taught to like Christians growing up. But if Christians are like you, then I like Christians now." I was shocked. Later on that evening, I sobbed because I knew that I was not living a life worthy of such a compliment. I decided, from then on, I would start living that way. I believe God used an 11-year-old Palestinian Muslim girl to reach me and revive my faith in Jesus.
I also met a man named Saria, a teacher in the same English Immersion Program whose emphasis was on the refugee crisis. In Sunday school as a child, I had faithfully learned the lessons of Jesus loving and being in community with people who would abandon and betray him. As a black man in the United States, I, along with many I knew, had experienced discrimination. But I had never seen a real-life example of profound forgiveness until I met Saria. Saria had an incredibly gentle heart and kind spirit. He was passionate and patient while educating me on the Syrian and larger global refugee crisis from first-hand experience. As a teen, Saria experienced abduction, abuse, and interrogation multiple times in his home country of Syria. But instead of being angry, he spoke of forgiveness and love towards the very men who harmed and threatened to kill him.
In returning to the U.S., it was heartbreaking to see the polling that suggested that only 25% of Evangelicals believe the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees. I could not help but lament the fact that we see in scripture the Holy family’s experience of having to flee and cross the border to Egypt to flee King Herod. How could that mean nothing to Bible-believing Christians? In 2 Corinthians 5:20 Paul speaks of us being “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” I wondered how that is possible if our posture does not include welcoming vulnerable groups of people to be in proximity to us.
I wanted to do more. A Global Outreach internship at my church connected me to the World Relief Sacramento office and a network of Evangelical churches who were committed to serving, being in relationship with, advocating for, and learning from our refugee neighbors. One of those neighbors was Jawad from Afghanistan. After bravely serving alongside our U.S. military in his home country, Jawad and his wife resettled to Sacramento. Jawad and I became friends and colleagues, and I have been humbled by his heart for bridge-building and his willingness to enter Evangelical spaces where some people have vocally attacked his Muslim faith.
Jawad’s example of remaining loving in the midst of prejudice has, like my experiences with Mahreen and Saria, served as a gentle reminder that I do not get a pass from Jesus to disregard my fellow siblings in Christ. When our country limits the number of refugees we accept into the U.S. below what we have the capacity to service, this is what we are doing. I pray that as we heal the political divisions in the U.S., we also open our hearts, homes and borders to those whose lives are at stake.
DeVon Wade is a member of World Relief Sacramento’s children and youth team.