What should I do if asylum seekers turn up at my church?

I often get approached by people when some asylum seekers turn up at their church. Particularly if they’re from Iran or Afghanistan. What do we do with them? How can we help them? These are the usual questions.

And I get it. Most churches are used to being fairly monocultural and don’t really know what to do when anybody different comes in. I really want to applaud the desire to love people well. But I think we can sometimes make the matter a much bigger thing than it ought to be.

So, in no particular order, here are some simple things you can do if asylum seekers turn up at your church. At the end, I’ll mention one issue for which there is no specific answer.

Welcome them

This might seem obvious, but it is really important. Most people, whoever they are, need to be welcomed. That means making yourself available to them, inviting them into your home and spending time with them. It may mean recognising what we consider a “warm welcome” needs a re-think. A handshake on the door and ‘see you next week’ probably won’t cut it. At the same time, I don’t think it means we have to totally change ourselves to be hospitable. Welcoming people fully and properly into the life of your church, into your homes and into family life will go a long way.

Get them a Bible

Again, this may seem obvious but it is important. Now, you might be thinking you don’t know what language they speak. That’s okay, just ask. You may wonder where exactly you are meant to get a Bible in that language from. Well, if nothing else, get them to download the YouVersion Bible app on their phone. The pretty wide array of languages are available on it and you are likely to find theirs so they can begin reading the Bible. There are also relatively easy to access places online where you can find what you need too. But giving somebody a Bible in their own language is a great thing to do, not just for their spiritual formation, but also as an act of welcoming someone.

Don’t overstretch yourself

When people come into the church – and this is true of anyone wherever they’re from – they will present with a variety of needs. And the truth of the matter is that you cannot possibly cater for every potential need. There will come a point where you can do no more. And even if you manage to press quite far down the needs of one person, or group of people, you can rest assured there will be a different group of people whose needs you aren’t meeting. This is just the reality of church life, especially in areas of deep need.

So, it is important not to overstretch yourself in meeting needs. Some see a new person and immediately think, ‘we must start translating services’. That’s a great thing to do if you can, but if a new Iranian believer with limited English turns up, you do have to ask the question who, exactly, is going to do the translation? Where will you access that service if nobody in-house speaks Farsi? These are things that have to at least be thought about. Just because another church is in a position to do it, doesn’t mean you will be. Perhaps you will be able to meet a host of other needs and will be able to serve that person in an altogether different way. This is not unimportant nor the wrong way to do it, it is just different based upon what the Lord has gifted your church to do. Remember you cannot meet every need, so work out what you are able to do and ensure it is actually helpful and focus on doing that.

Direct them to local agencies

If there are other asylum seekers in your area there will almost certainly be agencies around setup to help them. If you are in a needy area, there will be agencies around that – though not specifically for asylum seekers – may be relevant and helpful. If people need it, direct them to agencies that are set up to help them.

It is a good, general rule of thumb not to do things for people that they can do themselves. The temptation will be to attempt to resolve every problem somebody presents with. It is usually better not to do that, but to show people where different forms of help can be accessed and let them take the initiative in utilising them. That way you are helping, but they are not becoming dependent on you.

The problem with no answer

Some want to know what they should specifically be doing for this asylum seeker who has arrived at their church. The truth is, that question has no answer. That is because everyone is different. What one asylum seeker needs, another doesn’t. What is a problem for one is not necessarily a problem for another. You cannot offer a one-size fits all answer to that.

Instead, if you simply love them as they come in, get to know them well, you will soon discover the kind of issues they are facing. And as you get to know them and discover these things, you will begin to see where they need help. And when you discover that, you will know where to direct them, whether they are in a position to help themselves in that situation and what – if anything – you are actually in a position to do for them.