Canon Maria Tjeltveit
Church of the Mediator, Allentown
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch….
“The Ethiopian official.” That’s what the preacher at the Trinity Institute kept calling the man who Philip goes and engages on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The young, African American preacher was making the point that when we refer to the man in the story as “the Ethiopian eunuch” we have a tendency to see him as someone marginal. But in fact, this man was in charge of the entire treasury of an Ethiopian queen. He was not just an official; he was a high official! Changing that phrase made me hear the story (Acts 8:26-40), in a new way.
The experience of refugees coming to America is that they are defined by others in ways that may be radically different from who they were in their home country. Because he could not speak our language, a landscape architect, who was a refugee from Iraq, worked cleaning floors at a hospital for his first year. Those he encountered might have assumed that he was defined by this job.
Our diocese has a growing number of our churches which are involved in refugee ministry. St. Margaret’s, Emmaus, has sponsored two refugee families in the past: one from Vietnam and another, more recently, from Liberia. Part of the ministry of the parish was to come to know the refugees as whole people. Another part was to interpret the culture for them, the way Philip interpreted the scripture for the Ethiopian official. But sometimes the learning could go the other way. When the rector met with the mother of the Liberian family of four to help with taxes, the rector discovered that the family had sent money back to Africa, had saved money, and had tithed; all on a minimum wage job! This family had something to teach others. The family became baptized members of St. Margaret’s, before moving to Philly.
Church of the Mediator, Allentown, has a long history with refugees. A couple from Poland was sponsored in the 1950’s, and became active members of the parish. The stained glass windows over the altar were done by Leonids Linauts, a Latvian refugee who set up a studio near Reading. In the early 70’s, Joel Nafuma, a refugee priest from Uganda served as an Assistant Rector. (A refugee center in an Episcopal Church in Rome is named for him.) We sponsored a Vietnamese family in the 1990’s. Currently, we are discerning whether we are being called to start a refugee community center at Mediator; as a significant number of refugees live within walking distance of the church. We have begun by hosting ESL classes for refugees, providing hospitality twice a week.
On our pilgrimage as a diocese, especially in the Lehigh Valley, we are being invited to consider our commitment to refugees. Mediator’s Mission Page has good resources to learn more.
How might God be calling your parish and our diocese to reach out to refugees?