For the past two years, Kessler Park United Methodist Church has brought together church members and newly arrived refugees to share a First Thanksgiving Meal. In 2014, 65 church members and recently arrived refugees came together to give thanks and share food while children played games. In 2015, the church planned to repeat the successful event. However, this year’s meal felt very different; it occurred the day after the Paris attacks.
Across the country, including within the church’s home of Dallas, TX, communities reacted in solidarity with those grieving tragic loss. Many took the opportunity to affirm American values, not allowing despicable acts to frame our own debate. Yet, over 30 governors released statements refusing to allow Syrian refugees in their states. Not wishing to succumb to grandstanding or hateful rhetoric, faith communities across the United States continued to show welcome to arriving refugees, including those fleeing persecution in the Middle East.
At Kessler Park UMC, the meal proceeded as planned with over 80 attendees. Over turkey and broken English, church members and refugee families, including families from Syria, shared fellowship and thanks. One church member told Pastor Wes Magruder, “I’m glad we’re doing this today because of what happened last night. This is something we can do that feels like we’re making a difference or we’d be at home feeling mournful or fearful.” As plates of turkey and biscuits were passed, the feeling in the room was one of warmth and community, not fear or insecurity. Filled with Christian church members and Muslim refugees, the event space painted an image of the call in both faiths to show hospitality and welcome.
As the public debate over refugee resettlement continued, few seemed to focus on the critical element that has made the program so successful in places like Dallas. That element is the often faith driven prerogative to show kindness and welcome to newcomers. In a state that prides itself on going big, Kessler Park UMC has shown that big hearts are one of the most critical factors in creating welcoming communities in which everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
After the meal had finished and satisfied parishioners and refugees journeyed home, Pastor Wes Magruder received an email from a Kurdish refugee who had been resettled through the CWS local affiliate, Refugee Services of Texas. In expressing his thanks for the meal and time together, he continued that the secret of America is the people, and their “quest for good … to give hope to the hopeless, and the presence of a charming smile on their faces.”
Thankfully, congregations across the United States are finding the same secret to success as Kessler Park UMC. They are showing that safe and welcoming communities are as simple as sharing a meal and as time-honored as continuing the American tradition of diverse, welcoming communities. They have found that breaking bread together is more than just a meal, it’s an invitation to community.
Brianne Casey is the Community and Ecumenical Engagement Coordinator in CWS’s Immigration and Refugee Program.