Disciples News Service

Experiencing otherness

Three stories by Angela Dunston Johnson in response to workshops offered at the 2019 General Assembly

Refugee Simulation
Hunger Simulation
Welcoming Immigrants
As an eighteen-year-old son in a refugee family for all of 90 minutes, I pseudo-experienced hunger, water shortage, separation anxiety, close living conditions, and scarce medical help. Yet a man who considers himself a lifetime refugee explained that is just 1 percent of a refugee’s experience.

My simulation Guatemalan family lived in Mexico. We were rejected and mistrusted because our parents were from two different ethnic communities and different religions. I made it through secondary school, but probably would not be able to go any further because of my heritage. My father’s hammock business was faltering. My mother, a seamstress, and my older sister, who did embroidery, were receiving fewer projects.

There was a good possibility my younger brother would be expelled from high school any day. As my family built our backstory in preparation for the simulation, we realized we had to flee Mexico to save my sister’s virtue, to build a future for my brother and myself, for Mother and Father to find work, to have food, to stay alive.

Our “home” in the refugee camp

My brother and I found it hard to completely stretch out in the curtained room the five of us shared in the refugee camp. Father foraged for materials to make hammocks he hoped to sell. Mother and sister tried to take in sewing work. My brother and I competed to see who could carry five gallons of water the fastest without spilling any from the river two miles away. We did not keep all 10 gallons; we were only allowed one gallon per person per day. We carried for families who did not have someone to carry for them. Three times a day we lined up for our bowl of rice and beans. It was good to be able to put food into our bodies at a regular pace.

Our food ration for the day

While I attended school with my brother, our parents and sister met with others and looked for jobs, any jobs. When we found each other after our daily separation, the relief washed over us as the water of our old shower did. At school we did not understand our teachers, so we colored and drew on the papers they gave us.

When my time with my simulated refugee family ended, we split up to go our separate ways at the General Assembly. As I sat with other “refugee families” waiting for the debrief session, some families bonded so well they remained a unit. One man who was toddler for the simulation, talked of feeling anxiety when he was sent to nursery school, his older siblings to school, and his parents were looking for jobs. The separation was unsettling.

A woman portraying was a six-month-old baby was left behind at the food station by her Burmese family. A Honduran refugee family found her and took her to those running the refugee camp. She was eventually reunited with her family who were heart-sick over losing her. I must admit that my family did not think to care for this lost baby, maybe we thought her family would return for her. Maybe we were only thinking of ourselves as we had just begun our journey as a refugee family. What was I thinking?

A Life-Long Refugee’s Story

During the debrief session, Vinh Nguyen shared his story as a life-long refugee. He is Vietnamese and the youngest of ten children. With the Vietnam War raging, his parents spent their life savings to smuggle him out of the country on a boat for a better life. The pirates and fishermen who piloted the boats stripped their passengers naked to rob them of money hidden in their clothing. Passengers were beaten and raped during their voyage to safety.

Vinh arrived in Iowa at the age of 22 under Governor Robert Ray’s refugee program. Unable to speak or understand English, he found jobs working in hotel laundry, as a stock boy, a runner for missing supplies, and picking up trash at Adventureland (amusement) Park. One day he watched a family enjoying themselves at Adventureland and became angry with his parents for sending him away. He asked, “Why did my family do this to me?” This anger fueled an accusatory letter home to his parents. It also focused him. First Vinh learned English, then he continued his studies and became a teacher – his college advisor was skeptical about his chosen profession. Vinh’s passion is working with refugee students in the Des Moines school district where students speak over 100 different languages.

Vinh encountered discrimination for the first time when he cleaned a restaurant nightly from 11pm to 7am. He and his fellow workers, who were also refugees, had orders to be out of the restaurant before the general manager arrived in the morning. The general manager did not like foreigners. When Vinh used food stamps, grocery store clerks tore out the coupons very slowly so others in line were aware of his situation. A more recent encounter was a phone call from a man who asked if he was Vietnamese. When Vinh answered yes, the man asked, “Why don’t you get back on the boat and leave the country?” Unable to think of what to say, he hung up the phone. Now, Vinh sees that as a lost opportunity to educate others on why he is here and how he contributes, as well as how others need to build new lives away from oppression. Most days Vinh sees himself as 95 percent American; other days, he feels un-American because of statements others make.

Our Challenge

The Refugee Act of 1980 set an annual goal of refugee admissions at 95,000. The current United States administration has set the refugee goal at 30,000 for 2019. Every two seconds one person in the world becomes displayed. There are currently 70.8 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Most refugee camps do not provide the minimum standard area of 37 sq. ft. per person, yet, the average refugee spends 17 years in a refugee camp. Because most refugees eat mostly starch (rice and beans), many deal with diabetes but are unable to pay for testing strips to stay healthy. Water is scarce and may come from unhealthy sources.

What can you do? Many ideas were shouted out during the debrief session: pressure our leadership to help refugees, stay energized, strive for justice, be a voice for those who cannot speak, pray for peace, welcome everyone, work with churches to become a community where refugees can be understood and helped to move forward.

How many churches sponsored a Vietnamese family in the late 70’s and 80’s? I attended a church that did, and that family flourished. They were ahead of many other refugees as the father was an airline pilot and ensured his family knew English.

What are we doing today? One person talked of her church sponsoring a refugee family. It has been a two- and one-half-year commitment as the family moved from living with a church member, to living in a fully subsidized apartment, to a partially subsidized apartment. This church will continue with working this family to help them become fully independent.

Will you do better than my refugee family did when presented with a left-behind baby?

Will you:

• Contact Congress to stop the administration from turning away and detaining families seeking safety
• Post bail for detained parents to reunite them with their children
• Organize vigils and events to highlight this issue
• Support border shelters through donations to ensure released families get the welcome help they deserve
• Spread the needs of refugees on social media
• Work with your church to become a welcoming congregation?


Access the Disciples Home Missions Refugee & Immigration Missions site for more information. As you explore this site, you can access videos to share, read the RIM WRAP newsletter, and subscribe to receive the latest refugee news and action alerts.

Where will you start?

Is it possible to simulate the same hunger and food insecurity many people experience? The hunger one out of three families, one out five children, and one out of thirteen seniors in Iowa live with daily? Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott of the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) approximated the stresses a food insecure person deals with.

Waiting at DHS

I was Raymond, a 24-year-old war veteran unable to find work due to a military injury. I received $74 a week in Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. I was homeless and stayed in shelters or single residence occupancy hotels or camped. After paying my weekly expenses, I had $21 to spend on food. I was given 15 minutes to visit the Department of Human Services (DHS) to apply for benefits, ask the Food Pantry if they could help me, and purchase food at the grocery store to meet my nutritional needs.

My first stop was DHS where I was given a number. Thankfully, I was third in line. After waiting about 2 ½ minutes, my number was called. Then I had to answer questions about employment and family size. After receiving $48 in food stamps, my weekly grocery allotment increased to $69! Still, I wanted to see if I qualified at the Food Pantry.

Waiting again at the food pantry

When I arrived at the Food Pantry, it was closed and I was, again, third in line. It reopened in about 3 minutes and I qualified after answering their questions. I walked out with some grains, vegetables, fruit, protein, and dairy products. It was not enough for the week, so my next stop was the grocery store.

At the grocery store, I took a Life Happens card. The card I drew told me to pay a school fee of $2.45 per child. I had no children so that life event didn’t affect my food choices. I was luckier than others who paid the school fee, lost money, lost time, or lived where they could only shop at a Dollar Store or convenience store. However, time was running out as I hurriedly calculated the number of servings and cost of food to meet my nutritional needs. To fulfill my 34 units of vegetables, I quickly purchased 10 cans of green beans. I was fairly successful in my endeavors meeting all my food requirements except dairy, which was 9 units short.

What did I learn?

I was anxious when waiting for DHS to call my number and stumbled over my answers to their questions. I anxiously clicked my pen when waiting for the Food Pantry to open. I did not want to grocery shop until I knew what food, if any, they would help with. At the grocery store, I cautiously picked up the Life Happens card. What would I do if I encountered a life event that wiped out most of my money or put me in the hospital? As the clock ticked down while choosing my food, I panicked and picked up 10 cans of green beans to meet my required vegetable units. With each agency and stop, my stress level climbed. While it seemed like I did all right, Raymond remained homeless!

Why did the simulation include the time constraint?

Raymond, as many in his position, is totally dependent on bus schedules to get to DHS, the Food Pantry, and the grocery store. His time in DHS would be much longer than mine was and is probably in a location that is a bus ride away from the other stops. If the Food Pantry is closed when he arrives, he must return another day. He must plan his grocery shopping around the bus schedule to keep food from spoiling. Time is of the essence to the food insecure.

Of the four personas used for this simulation, only two qualified for food stamps and all qualified at the Food Pantry. Three of the personas held jobs but could not adequately feed their families. Brittany, a single mother of two pre-school aged children, and Jose, whose wife also worked and was raising a young son, seemed to fare the worst. They made too much money to qualify for DHS benefits, but could barely feed their children. How is this possible?

It takes more work time to cover rent today than it did in the past. In the 1950’s, a person worked fifty-six hours to pay one month’s rent – that’s one week and two days. The remainder of that month’s income, two weeks and three days was available for other expenses. Today, a person works 109 hours or two and a half weeks to pay one month’s rent. This leaves only one and a half week’s pay to cover all other expenses, including food. In 1979, 385.5 hours or seven and a half weeks of pay covered one year of college tuition, books, and even some other expenses. Today, it takes an average of 2,229 hours to pay for one year of college tuition excluding books and other expenses. That is 43 hours a week, every week, for a year!

Many people today work in minimum wage jobs of which many are part-time, not full-time. Currently, the top three employers are Walmart, Yum Foods (KFC, Taco Bell), and McDonald’s. That’s very different from the top three in the 1950s: General Motors, US Steel, and General Electric. Today, most people do not work their lifetime at one job or one that provides a retirement pension. To cover the basic needs of a single person in Iowa, that person needs to make $13.18 per hour and work 40 hours per week. Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25.

One way of covering that gap is through programs such as food pantries and government assistance. Yet, in Iowa only half of the food insecure who could receive DHS benefits actually do. Why is this? Some of the reasons may be transportation to DHS, frequently changing DHS guidelines, unawareness of the benefits, pride, not understanding the process, lack of the necessary documentation, misinformation, no home address, and fear of not qualifying.

When there is not enough money to cover all expenses, most people pay the rent and keep their cars running to get to and from work and appointments. Most pay for necessary medications. The easiest expense to cut back on is food. They buy less food and skip meals. They fill their shopping carts with higher calorie, lower nutritional, less expensive food and fewer fresh vegetables and fruit which tend to be higher in price. This results in lower nutrition for the entire family and a higher rate of obesity.

Food pantries, such as the DMARC Food Pantry, provide fresh produce and other help. Participants of the hunger simulation learned that food pantries can offer help more when they receive money donations than when they receive food donations. Food pantry volunteers must hand sort all donations to ensure they are not expired and are good food. Rev. Garriott shared that DMARC must open each jar of peanut butter to ensure it has not been used because they receive at least one jar a week that is half used. Also, food pantries can purchase food in bulk which means they can purchase more with the same money than an individual can.

Yes, it is possible to approximate some of what a food insecure person experiences. It is important to learn why people are food insecure. The next step is to determine what each of us can do to work with the insecure. Is it to work through the government to effect change? To volunteer at a food pantry? To donate money or time to an agency that works with food insecure people? What will you do?

When you kiss your children good-bye as you depart for work, do you worry about being able to return that evening? Do your children leave for school wondering if they will see you after school? Do you drive to the grocery store in fear of committing a traffic infraction and being pulled over? These are real fears of both legal and illegal immigrants.

During the Becoming Immigrant Welcoming Churches workshop at the 2019 General Assembly, four immigrants shared their personal stories and also those of other immigrants. Valeria Bejar was carried by her parents through the desert at the age of two and experienced the trauma of her father’s deportation many times. She is currently protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy which provides work permit eligibility, and she must renew her status every two years.

Pastor Edwin Lloyd of the Whatsoever Will Christian Church arrived in the U.S. as a political refugee in 1995. His congregation population is mostly Liberians who arrived under Temporary Protective Status (TPS) which eventually expired, and then were placed under Deferred Enforced Deportation (DED) status. These immigrants have settled here with their children, purchased homes, given birth to more children, have businesses, and work daily jobs. Their possible deportation when the DED status expires will affect both their families and America. Many of his congregation work in assisted living facilities and their deportation will affect the care of those they currently look after. They arrived in America legally, but have no path for permanent status.

As the second-generation child of an immigrant, Pastor Gabriel Lopez lives in two worlds. He is not Mexican enough for the Mexicans and he is not American enough for the Americans. He works with a Tijuana organization that provides housing in Mexico for those seeking to immigrate to the US and with a San Diego organization supporting the Tijuana organization.

Working with Montagnard refugees in Charlotte, NC, Pastor Nglol Rahlan also talked about people living in two worlds. The Montagnard ethnic group was caught in the middle of the Vietnam world and immigrated to the U.S. To leave Vietnam, many crossed into Thailand and half of those were jailed upon arrival.

What does the Bible tell us about treating other people? All people are created in the image of God. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he showed us how to treat people from other nationalities. Mary and Joseph sought asylum in Egypt making them and Jesus refugees for a time. The testimonies summarized earlier contain a common thread – immigration is not a political issue; it is a theological issue. Filter everything you read and hear about immigration and immigrants through the lens of the Bible.

Why do people illegally emigrate? When they are deported, why don’t they go through legal channels to return? As Disciples Immigration Legal Counsel Tana Liu-Beers explained, “The United States Immigration Service is broken.” When a person is deported, there is a wait period of ten years before he/she can legally apply to enter the U.S. If that person is married and possibly has a family, ten years is a long time to be apart. Even when entering the U.S. legally, a person must first have a green card, then wait many years to apply for citizenship.

How Can a Church Help?

Churches can help by becoming immigrant welcoming and provide immigrants a safe place to be heard. U.S. Immigration Services treat people as objects which dehumanizes them. Rev. Hector Hernandez tells us that when we work with immigrants, we say they have worth. Listen fully to each immigrant’s story – no two will be the same. Listen to their needs; do not assume you know. Search for organizations that are already working well with immigrants and partner with them. Immigrant-led organizations are the most effective organizations. Create relationships with schools and immigrant children. Be ready; when you start down this path, you must follow through. Recognize “You are doing something with the immigrants, not for them,” as Rev. Hernandez stated.

Bejar presented an immigrant welcoming congregation model to follow as you work toward becoming a welcoming congregation. In her new position as Immigration Response Specialist of Refugee and Immigration Ministries, she emphasized the model will not be the same for each church but will guide you on your journey. After you sign up at http://bit.ly/IWCInterest, then begin your process by following five steps.

  1. Create a planning covenant that includes your plans for steps 2 through 5.
  2. Make prayerful preparation. Through Bible study prepare your spirits for this ministry.
  3. Build partnerships for understanding. Listening skills will be very important as you learn their needs.
  4. Create a public presence for transformation. Connect with organizations that are working well with immigrants, be open to new experiences even if they are uncomfortable, share your journey with others.
  5. Provide prevention and protection. Think about how you can provide safety for immigrants, such as driving a person to their Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) appointments, to the doctor, to the grocery store.

When becoming an immigrant welcoming church, know that good intentions may not bring about the desired results. It is important to know what not to do.

  • Do NOT give legal advice. Even if the situation seems similar to one you have dealt with, it is not. Contact disciplesimmigration.org for legal help.
  • Do NOT promise hope. Be truthful, no matter how difficult.
  • Do NOT minimize a person’s story. Allow them to share their unique story.
  • Do NOT hold back love and compassion. Show this through your actions.

Begin at the Beginning

As an individual, access https://disciples.org and click the Children and Families in Detention at the Border: A Word to the Church link. Read this letter. If you agree, please add your name.

When your congregation decides to become an immigrant welcoming church, access https://disciples.org, click Mission, and click Refugee & Immigration Ministries. You will find links to Bible studies, events, and more.