From a rise in hate crimes to a general distrust and discrimination against refugees and immigrants, some Moravian clergy began to wonder if Jesus’ call to “welcome the stranger” is being heard in our nation today. The Moravian Church, which celebrated its 560th birthday on March 1, dates back to days of intense religious persecution in 16th and 17th century Europe. Members of our early church often found themselves refugees seeking safe places to live and worship, relying on the kindness of strangers.
A statue of one of those early refugees, John Amos Comenius, can be found on Moravian College’s main campus today, on Main Street in Bethlehem. It was Comenius, a revolutionary educator and bishop in the Moravian Church, who wrote eloquently on the common humanity of all of God’s children, even as he and his church were searching for a place to practice their faith and live in safety: “We are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood. To hate a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language, or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly. Desist, I implore you, for we are all equally human…Let us have but one end in view, the welfare of humanity.”
In early February, Moravian clergy found ourselves looking for a way to express our hope for our common humanity, and to follow Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger in a time when refugees from war-torn areas have been barred and immigrants have been labeled as criminals or predators. Drawing on our own religious heritage, we decided to hold a lovefeast of welcome, using our Moravian tradition of a simple meal open to all to strengthen relationships and fellowship and, especially in this case, to promote dialogue.
On Sunday, February 26, the Moravian Clergy of the Lehigh Valley welcomed over 300 people to Johnston Hall at Moravian College, just steps from where the Comenius statue stands. We called the event “Join We ALL: Welcoming Refugees and Immigrants as Neighbors and Friends.” Our neighbors and friends came from all walks of life, some recent refugees from Syria and other war-torn places, helped by religious communities in the Valley; others from Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities throughout our area.
Gathered around tables of eight or ten, we were led in prayer by members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. We learned about the ongoing resettlement of carefully vetted and approved refugees from Marla Sell of Bethany Christian Services. We heard about the hospitality and ministry of the new Refugee Community Center at Church of the Mediator in Allentown from the Rev. Twila Smith.
The question of why we welcome the stranger and why we strive to follow Comenius’ call to understand ourselves as citizens of one world was especially highlighted by the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley’s (MALV) Outreach Coordinator, Sherrine Eid. MALV’s ministry extends to those refugees and immigrants who struggle with the everyday adjustment and survival of being settled in a completely new place.
“Yes,” Sherrine said, “it is refugees, immigrants who need us … and it is also the homeless veterans, the women facing domestic abuse who need us. If we haven’t done it well enough as a community…it is time for us now to step up. We are all immigrants,” she reminded the group and as a powerful visual, asked us to stand, starting with those who are immigrants today, to the children of immigrants, all the way back to those who can trace their lineage to the Mayflower. “Without [gatherings like these], humanity will be a disaster,” she concluded, “and it is because of this that there is hope today.”
Finally, our table discussions over a variety of breads from many different cultures and nations, provided by participants (including our own Moravian sugarcake), offered us the opportunity to learn more about the common humanity we share. We discussed what home means to us, and how hospitality has impacted our lives. We learned about paths we can travel together, agencies and vehicles by which hospitality is extended here in the Lehigh Valley and advocacy efforts nationwide.
We pray that in some way “Join We ALL” fostered hope to move forward, a witness to our common humanity and a will for our community to be a welcoming place that turns a stranger into a friend.
The Rev. Janel R. Rice is pastor of Calvary Moravian Church in Allentown, Pa. A version of this article also appeared in the Allentown Morning Call.