Interfaith Refugee Ministry in West Virginia, USA
Lynn Clarke reflects on interfaith efforts to counter anti-refugee sentiment in coal country.
I live in economically depressed coal country in Charleston, West Virginia, USA. Diversity and jobs are scarce, and fear of the ‘other’ can be stoked easily among us, even though we are ordinarily friendly, with a long tradition of hospitality and help of neighbours.
But there have always been seeds of tolerance and hope here. The clergy in Charleston of all faiths regularly meet together in a group called the “Charleston Area Religious Leaders Association”. In March of 2015, clergy and laypersons from the three Abrahamic faiths gathered for a town hall style meeting to address the problem of hate crimes.
In September 2015, when another parishioner and I approached the Rector, the Reverend Marquita Hutchens, at our church, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, WV, to ask how we could help refugees, each of us had contacts in other faith communities to build upon. Through those contacts, we spread the news that we were planning to hold an interfaith webinar and panel discussion on the refugee situation on October 26, 2015. Approximately 150 community members of all faiths attended the webinar and our panelists, including clergy from a local Syrian Orthodox Church, the local Islamic Association and Catholic Charities (the resettlement agency in our community), gave impassioned and informative talks on the refugee situation. From that meeting, we have gathered over 100 names and email addresses of volunteers who want to help our community welcome refugees.
Since then members of the WV Interfaith Refugee Ministry have met with political leaders, including two United States Senators and representatives from the offices of West Virginia’s delegates to the United States House of Representatives and its Governor, to discuss the refugee situation. We asked our political leaders to let our state continue to resettle refugees here in our communities in 2016.
Now we are planning ongoing interfaith events to educate community members and to introduce them to members of faiths other than their own. Our belief is that only personal contact can overcome bigotry and fear of the ‘other’.
Coal country has a long tradition of surviving hard times through sharing of resources, with neighbours helping neighbours. My hope is that we can build upon that tradition of hospitality to overcome fear, and welcome those who are fleeing violence and terror to the safety and peace of our beautiful West Virginia hills.
This article is written by Lynn Clarke who is an attorney in Charleston WV, USA. She holds a University of Cambridge MSt in The Study of Jewish-Christian Relations which was taught by the Woolf Institute, and a law degree from Harvard Law School. She is volunteering with the WV Interfaith Refugee Ministry (you can find the WVIRM on Facebook), and through St. John’s Episcopal Church (www.stjohnswv.org), to help refugees.