Last night, CBS’ “60 Minutes” aired a timely rerun – the rebroadcast of much of an earlier piece on the refugee resettlement program that Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta has been engaged in.
Members are currently helping 10 families in metro Atlanta: one Iranian Christian refugee family and nine Syrian Muslim refugee families.
On GBP’s “Political Rewind” this afternoon, host Bill Nigut and I were able to build on that. We brought in the Rev. Bryant Wright, senior pastor of Johnson Ferry and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and asked for his reaction to President Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority states, including Iran and Syria. If you missed the live broadcast, listen here:
Elsewhere, a ranking Southern Baptist official on Monday called on Trump to resume the resettlement of Syrian refugees as quickly possible, and also asked the president to affirm his commitment to help people of all faiths.
It’s not just theology. There is a practicality to this request. More below, but the Baptist official is worried that Christian missionaries abroad might be targeted in retaliation.
So back to the beginning. Here’s what Wright had to say:
“It’s been very disappointing… Part of that is because Johnson Ferry has been so involved in ministry to Syrian refugees – really going to ministries that are headquartered in Beirut and Amman, Jordan. We’ve been partnering with those ministries for years – before we had the Syrian family refugee families that we have helped and are still helping in the re-settling process.
The Rev. Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church (Screen capture from AJC video)
“Our heart goes out to these folks that are just, truly double victims now. They’re caught in the crossfire of a civil war, as well as ISIS constantly stirring up fear and terror there. Then [losing] the opportunity to come to the United States, often to be reunited with family members that are already here – is really heartbreaking….
I asked Wright what he thought of the Christian Broadcasting Network interview in which Trump said he intended to favor Middle East Christians in future. Said Wright:
“It does seem like, in some of the reports I’ve read, that they have not had the kind of priority that we would love the United States to have to come to the rescue of these folks. At the same time, we’re called as Christians to seek to reach out to any person in need. Our fellow man is our neighbor.
“So I understand the concern. I just can’t speak with much authority about how much of this was occurring."
Nigut wondered if members of Johnson Ferry Baptist would join the protests against the Trump executive order. Said the pastor:
“….What we did in the Sunday services was, we prayed for the refugees, and prayed specifically for the Syrian Muslim refugees and the Iranian Christian refugee family. There’s one Christian family and nine Muslim families that we’re helping to resettle here. So we prayed for them, specifically, and we also prayed for President Trump…
“We understand the government’s role is to provide security for citizens. It’s a different role from the church. At the same time, when we feel like the decisions on security are not well thought out, or not really the wisest or fairest, we certainly as citizens are called to speak out….
“If this continues on, I’m sure that there will be members of our congregation that are writing our short-term congressman, Tom Price, as well as our two U.S. senators, asking them to weigh in in a way that leads to reconsideration of this misguided decision.
“I understand he’s trying to fulfill a campaign promise. I understand he’s trying to protect citizens. There’s great fear about Islamic terrorism….
“These [refugees] are so well vetted. It’s just nothing like the European situation, when people are showing up on your shore. There’s always the chance that somebody can break through the system, but these people are so well vetted…”
Purely by coincidence, as Wright was speaking, we received an email from Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s governmental affairs arm. Moore said he had sent a letter to Trump on the topic of his executive order. Some excerpts from Moore’s letter:
“The church’s commitment to welcoming the stranger has long been reflected in our country’s policies toward those fleeing persecution in their home countries. As Southern Baptists, we believe the role of government is first and foremost to protect its people from harm.
“As a nation, we must seek to resolve the tension created by these two values—compassion for the sojourner and the security of our citizens—in a way that upholds both values. While we know refugees are already the most vetted category of immigrants to the United States, the FBI and others raised legitimate questions about the sufficiency of these procedures. It is crucial these questions be resolved. As a result, we are sympathetic to the desire to strengthen our nation’s security processes.
This is the passage that caught our eye:
“Southern Baptists are among the many Americans living in majority-Muslim countries to carry out the biblical call to love their neighbors. We are deeply concerned that the order will cause widespread diplomatic fallout with the Muslim world, putting Southern Baptists serving in these countries in grave danger and preventing them from serving refugees and others who are in need with humanitarian assistance and the love of the gospel.
“Achieving the right balance between compassion toward refugees—one of the most vulnerable groups of people among us—and protection of Americans is crucial if the United States is to remain a model for freedom around the world. It is one thing to debate whether the vetting process is adequate. It is quite another to seek to potentially turn our backs on Syrian refugees permanently.”
Moore, another Trump skeptic during the campaign, also said he made some specific requests of the Trump administration, including the following:
-- Clarify, through a rigorous interagency review and coordination, the extent of the Executive Order to resolve the status of green card holders, Iraqi military interpreters, and other ambiguities;
-- Implement additional screening measures in order that the Refugee Admission Program may be resumed as soon as possible, including for refugees from Syria;
-- Work to ensure the safety of Americans serving in majority-Muslim countries and to preserve their ability to continue serving the “least of these” in the region; and…
Here’s the fix that might have the most resonance:
-- Affirm your administration’s commitment to religious freedom and the inalienable human dignity of persecuted people whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Yazidi, or other, and adjust the Executive Order as necessary.
Both Wright and Moore were Trump skeptics during the presidential campaign. Even so, on the whole, Southern Baptists aren’t a liberal lot. Most of the denomination probably voted for Trump. And if they’re worried, it’s possible that some White House back-pedaling is in the works. Perhaps while you’re arguing about Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court pick tomorrow.