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One topic in particular has been strong in Reverend Corwin Hammond’s mind since Jan. 27, the day President Donald Trump issued an executive order temporarily barring all refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
It’s been a large part of the conversation at Chickahominy Baptist Church in Toano. Hammond has preached sermons on it, received calls about it and dedicated Wednesday night’s bible study to it.
He has prayed with church members about it and provided words of comfort to them. Like many religious leaders in the Historic Triangle, Hammond is looking for ways to address President Donald Trump’s executive order in his church.
Churches across the country are finding the order contradicts one of their principal values: That all people need to be treated with kindness and compassion, regardless of race, geography or background.
“When they brought those in need to him, Jesus didn’t ask ‘Where you from?’” Hammond said.
Speaking to a gathering of religious leaders Thursday for his first National Prayer Breakfast, Trump defended the order that suspends refugee admissions for 120 days, prevents any travelers from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days and suspends the Syrian refugee program indefinitely.
“There’s a lot of discussion and there’s a lot of sadness,” Hammond said of the faith community’s reaction to the order. “It’s almost like a grief, because the foundation of our faith is about love and receiving the stranger, and showing compassion to those who are less fortunate and don’t have.”
While U.S. citizens and officials grapple with potential effects of the executive order, other pastors, like the Rev. Dennis Griffith of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, are trying to address the president’s order while still reaching all members of the congregation – no matter what their political beliefs are.
“I’ve been wrestling with this whole thing about how to address it in my own church,” Griffith said. “We have people who support President Trump and others who are opposed to him.”
Some pastors in the Historic Triangle are also concerned the executive order may cause or strengthen divisions between religious groups.
The president’s executive order prioritizes future refugees on the basis of religious persecution, “providing that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” The seven countries specifically listed in Trump’s executive order are predominately Muslim.
In a Jan. 27 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump told an interviewer Christians in Syria were “horribly treated” and Muslims had a much easier time coming into American than Christians did in the past.
“It appeared that the order targets specific people,” Hammond said. “How can I say as a Christian that I believe the lives of all people matter, but then turn around and tell people who are fleeing persecution and the possibility of death, that ‘you’re coming in, but your life doesn’t matter’?”
“It’s kind of like you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth,” he added.
Since 2002, far more Christian refugees have been accepted in the United States than Muslims, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization. Over the last 15 years, 399,677 Christian refugees — compared to 279,339 Muslim refugees — have been accepted into the U.S.
“When the government begins to legislate laws that really fly in the face of what we believe as Christians, under the guise of being a Christian, we believers are obligated to speak out. Don’t say you’re propagating an order that’s laced with hate and then say ‘It’s because we’re protecting Christians,’” Hammond said.
Griffith is giving the executive order the benefit of the doubt until Trump’s intentions behind it become more clear.
“The question is whether [the discrimination] is an intentional motive, or whether it’s a byproduct of countries who our government associates with terrorism,” Griffith said. “Where I am, if it’s proven that the order is driven by bigotry, it is horrendous and inappropriate. If this is a permanent ban, then I would be opposed to it and say it needs to be overhauled.”
Griffith said he worries the executive order could create rifts within the faith community.
“The order could expose or cause divisions within the faith community itself, or within particular expressions within the local faith community, because we’ve allowed politics to overshadow everything else,” he said. “I think politics have become central to too many people.”
Sunday morning, just two days after Trump signed the executive order barring refugees, Pastor Fred Liggin stood in front of the congregation at the Williamsburg Christian Church, giving a sermon on hospitality and how a “love for strangers” is central in the Christian story and history.
The topic of the sermon had been established before Trump signed the order, but the latest news gave the sermon new context, Liggin said.
“Whether or not I, a christian, should welcome and care for others is not a question I have to ask,” Liggin said in an email to WYDaily, the full text of which is here. “It is only a question of ‘how.’ As christians our social orientation should be toward hospitality, not away from it. If someone comes to me from underneath a bridge in my city or from the other side of the Atlantic, I must extend God’s welcome to them and do for them and their loved ones what I would want done for me and mine. This is what Jesus teaches us.”
For African Americans, the discrimination sparked by Trump’s order is reminiscent of struggles and inequalities blacks have faced throughout the years, and continue to face, Hammond said.
“As African Americans, seeing other people being treated unfairly kind of begins to scrape the scab off a wound that’s not even healed,” Hammond said.
“People are afraid and nervous in the African American community, because we know what discrimination feels like and tastes like…The people in the countries in this order are people of color as well. So you know, that’s something that plays in our minds, too. There’s a ban, and you say Muslim, but most of them are people of color as well.”
The Christian response is clear in Liggin’s mind.
“Our Scriptures tell us that we are to welcome the stranger and care for the oppressed, regardless of race, religion, or nationality,” he said. “How that plays out on national levels in terms of very specific policies, I’m not sure. However, what my christian ethic does tell me is that it is wrong for politicians to decide whose life has value and whose does not. Human dignity and value is intrinsic because the Bible teaches that all are created in the image of God, and we are told to see every person as He sees them.”
Grace Covenant Presbyterian will continue to minister to people in need and those overseas, Griffith said, regardless of the meaning behind Trump’s order.
The church has at least one church member overseas currently ministering, but their location is currently undisclosed for their safety, Griffith said.
At the Chickahominy Baptist Church, contact information for residents’ representatives in Congress are displayed every Sunday, encouraging people to take action if they feel strongly about a certain issue.
Griffith believes the church and government each have different “spheres of responsibility,” explaining that the government’s job is to protect U.S. citizens and the country, while the church has a “responsibility to be compassionate. Period.”
“When we blur those lines, we come up with reductionary measures,” he said.
Griffith also expressed concern over politics becoming people’s priority, and said humanitarian resolutions to conflicts are being sacrificed.
“If politics continue to remain supreme, it’s going to continue to cause divisions,” he said.
Even in a divisive political climate, the Historic Triangle’s faith community stands behind the principle of being kind and compassionate to others.
“I know that we need to have a place in helping our brothers and sisters from other countries whose homes are being torn up,” Hammond said. “How can America see that and then close its doors? It’s just not who we are. And that’s what hurts.”
Fearing can be reached at 207-975-5459.