Children from St. Andrew’s Lutheran and Northminster Presbyterian play during VBS 2022.
Photo credit: St. Andrew's, Hickory
In April 2022, congregations in a Lutheran Services Carolinas’ Circle of Welcome worked together to relocate a family from Afghanistan to Hickory, NC. Two months into the marathon of resettlement, after Eid-al-Fitr celebrations for the end of Ramadan and the birth of a new baby, they gathered in a city park picnic shelter to celebrate World Refugee Day. This event drew families from Syria, Pakistan, India, Catawba County—and of course Afghanistan—and it was a kick-off for a three-night Vacation Bible School program for Circle congregations. The ecumenical, intergenerational VBS drew on a Lutheran World Relief curriculum, “Seeing Our Neighbors” that was designed for congregations engaged in efforts to support Ukrainian refugees. Leaders tweaked the resource to deepen our conversations about God’s call to welcome Afghan evacuees to North Carolina.
Gathering at the partner church, Northminster Presbyterian, participants joined in a meal before breaking into program groups for adults and children. The adults engaged in Visio Divina, an exercise in “divine seeing” that utilized images of the evacuation and resettlement in conjunction with a study of Matthew 25: 31-49. Each evening invited those gathered to think about ways to welcome the stranger, help the sick, or feed the hungry—essential care for neighbors near and far.
Children heard stories from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian perspectives that elaborated on being good neighbors. And, like any good VBS program, arts, games, and plenty of play kept the children engaged. Pastor Jill Isola of the host church commented that one of her favorite moments was hearing children swinging and shouting “It’s a mitz-vah!” from a children’s book they read about doing good deeds. Six- and eight-year-old Madeline and Ella Tomberlin, members of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Hickory, said that their favorite part of the week was playing games about being neighbors. Their mother, Jessica, really enjoyed getting to know some of the other members from the Circle of Welcome including the Afghan children. She said that the opportunity “pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and interact with people beyond St. Andrew’s. The focus of the VBS on welcoming the stranger definitely spoke to me.”
Getting out of comfort zones can be challenging for Lutherans who revel in the familiar and rejoice in tradition, but doing so is important for building empathetic communities. Whether displacement occurs due to war, regime change, environmental disaster, occupation, or eviction, not much is more discomforting than being displaced from one’s home. As the Hickory Circle of Welcome congregations experience the discomfort of language barriers, cultural differences, and limits on available assistance, may all people of God learn through such encounters about the ways God is calling us to see and love our neighbors.