Global crises fill news headlines day after day.
ISIS’ reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. The quasi-war in Ukraine. Boko Haram’s violent actions in Nigeria. Sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic. Brutal acts by al-Shabbab in Somalia. Political instability in Libya. War in South Sudan. Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar). The list could go on.
While each situation is unique, each results in large numbers of people in need of various forms of assistance.
A majority of news stories, press conferences and analyses focus on how governments and high-profile organizations like the U.N. can and should respond.
What makes fewer headlines – usually appearing in niche publications from denominational news services and the ever-dwindling number of religion news writers – are the significant initiatives that communities of faith take in addressing the needs of people in crisis.
Global faith communities from all traditions make significant contributions to relief efforts. They are often the first to call for, and provide, a compassionate response to persons in need.
Yet faith-based humanitarian aid remains a too often overlooked component in addressing global crises.
As the migrant-refugee crisis has grown, with a few exceptions European Union nations have continued to fumble their response – debating over an equitable distribution of refugees, seeking to shift responsibility outside the EU, and taking a “fortress mentality” via border fence building and changing its Mediterranean actions from “search and rescue” to “survey and prevent.”
The U.S. response has been equally hesitant. While it has provided significant financial assistance, it has accepted only 1,500 Syrian refugees since 2011. Commitments to accept more refugees were not announced until late September.
Meanwhile, churches and faith-based organizations have been acting to provide aid and house refugees. Here are a few Baptist examples:
When the Ukraine conflict broke out, Baptist congregations ministered to the nearly 1 million internally displaced persons. The Baptist Union of Ukraine has been actively involved in aid initiatives throughout the quasi-war.
Following the rise of ISIS, millions of refugees have fled from Iraq and Syria into neighboring nations, including Lebanon. Lebanese Baptists have set aside a historic disdain of Syrians in offering compassion, empathy and tangible aid.
“Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD) was one of the first nongovernmental organizations that started to address the needs of Syrian refugees, who began to cross their country’s borders in 2011,” noted Helle Liht, associate general secretary of the European Baptist Federation.
LSESD, in conjunction with local churches, is continuing to provide food, clothing, potable water, educational opportunities and other supplies (such as blankets, mattresses and stoves).
Following a recent visit to Germany, LSESD executive director Nabil Costa praised the nation’s overall response to Syrian refugees, particularly the Christian community.
“Many had opened their homes, offering food and other assistance. Dignity and human rights were being respected regardless of national origin,” he said.
When more than 13,000 refugees from Syria and elsewhere arrived in Austria in early September, Baptists were among those who responded by helping provide for refugees basic needs and spending time with them.
When a mid-September wave of refugees arrived in Croatia, the Baptist Union mobilized quickly.
“Our engagement started about 24 hours after the crisis began,” reported union leaders who met with local government officials and community leaders about how to best provide aid. Croatian Baptists are helping coordinate efforts to collect donations and facilitate their distribution of supplies to those in need.
In late September, Baylor Scott and White Health’s Faith in Action Initiatives (FIAI), led by Don Sewell, a Texas Baptist, sent medical supplies to Syrian refugees in Hungary. These supplies are being distributed by Hungarian Baptist Aid, another Baptist aid organization providing humanitarian assistance to people in crisis.
Sewell was named EthicsDaily.com’s “Baptist of the Year” for 2015 as a result of his work in coordinating FIAI’s aid efforts.
They have sent medical supplies to help unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S., protective gear to Liberia to help with Ebola responses, as well as medical supplies to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Like the list of global crises, the litany of Christian responses could go on.
This doesn’t even touch on either the denominational entities that send financial assistance or the social capital of local churches that support their communities by strengthening families, addressing local needs and issues, urging compassionate responses to persons in need, and seeking to bridge divides.
When crises take place, people of faith are quick to couple their calls for government leaders to act with practical, tangible initiatives.
Government action is needed to address fully the global crises. The work of the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and other international aid groups must be more sufficiently funded.
But don’t overlook or diminish the importance of local churches and faith-based organizations in helping to fill the gap where government and higher-profile aid initiatives fall short.
Too often, faith-based groups are pushed aside or neglected in the aid process, even though they are the some of the oldest humanitarian aid actors working in the most difficult, dangerous places.
Houses of faith cannot replace the work of governments and international aid groups, but they can (and do) play a substantial role.
They exist everywhere. They are in touch with the needs (and cultural nuances) of their community.
They can (and do) serve often as first responders to crises. They can provide information to government and aid organization leaders about how best to respond.
And they continue to provide aid long after the global conscience has moved on to other “breaking news.”
In short, they offer significant social capital to their communities in both good times and bad times, a reality that should be more widely acknowledged and celebrated.