Talking with Navid* about his journey, I was taken back to Walter Shurden’s undergraduate classroom at Mercer University when we were asked to read “The Cost of Discipleship.”
Mine has often been a “cheap grace,” to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s parlance: grace without cost, grace without discipleship, grace without the cross. Navid challenged all of that for me.
This man, who had witnessed the deaths of friends in the camp in Papua New Guinea because of brutality and medical neglect, who was beaten and tortured and made to leave his family whom he loved dearly, would get up every morning and carry on.
I asked him how he did it, and how he lived without hate toward those who had treated him so horribly.
He reminded me of the Beatitudes, those verses I could once recite by heart but had largely forgotten. “Blessed are those who suffer for doing what is right, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
He told me that Jesus had taught him how to forgive through his own act of forgiveness on the cross.
We were in the process of sponsoring Navid to come to Toronto when he received word he had been approved for a U.S. resettlement program.
During the Obama presidency, a bilateral arrangement was established between the U.S. and Australian governments to bring more than 1,000 refugees from Australia’s offshore processing centers to the U.S.
When President Trump took office, he called the arrangement a “rotten deal” while on the phone with the Australian prime minister.
Despite Trump’s resistance and anti-refugee politics in both the U.S. and Australia, the deal has survived, although it is clear that many Iranians, Somalis, Yemenis and Syrians have been rejected since Trump’s inauguration.
We don’t know why Navid was accepted when many other Iranians in offshore processing centers were rejected, but my personal guess is that it is because he is a Christian. (The immigration officer asked him for a definition of “Pentecost.”)
When Navid found out he was accepted to the U.S., he was torn. He wanted to come to Canada because we now felt like family, but the Canadian process could take two years to complete, and even one more day in Papua New Guinea was too much.
We told him he had to take the U.S. deal, knowing, however, that the U.S. government wouldn’t provide a soft landing spot or people to do the caring work that the private sponsorship model provides.
Many of the men being transferred to the U.S. already had relatives or friends living there who would serve as their “anchors.”
Because of this, the International Organization for Migration, who coordinated the resettlement, would relocate the men to their relatives’ home cities.
But Navid had no “anchor,” no friends or family in the U.S. at all.
Every year, I teach students about the power of what sociologist Christian Smith calls “disruptive religion” – the role that people and organizations of faith play in making social change.
Religion is such a powerful force for social activism because of its institutional resources, ideologies of service and care for others and wide-reaching networks.
So, when I wanted to help Navid, I turned to the Christian community that I grew up in.
I sent out what I lovingly refer to as “the Baptist bat signal,” asking this question: “Is there a church community that can serve as an anchor for my friend, a refugee from Iran who will soon arrive in the U.S.?”
I was vague on the details because even I didn’t understand what was required.
I started with my dad, Charles Bugg, who has been pastor and teacher to so many and who knows the ways of Baptist life far better than I do.
I reached out to friends in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Georgia and South Carolina, including former Mercer University classmates.
I sent emails for help to friends and staff from former churches, including First Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. And I put the word out on my Facebook page describing Navid’s situation and asking for help.
Almost immediately, I heard from Joy Craig. During the 1980s, we were in the youth group together at First Baptist of Augusta.
Although we hadn’t seen each other in decades, we kept in touch through Facebook. She now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her family.
Joy asked if I could tell her some of the logistics of how this might work. I said I had no idea and was just playing it by ear, but I told her Navid’s story and that we loved him like a brother.
Her response: “I trust you completely. We’re in.”
My dad told me about a former student from his time at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Mark White, who now serves as senior pastor at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh; we discovered that the church has an active ministry to Farsi speakers.
I heard from Bo Prosser, a friend and long-time staff member at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) in Atlanta, who told me about Kim and Marc Wyatt, CBF Global Missions field personnel with Welcome House Raleigh.
I reached out to Marc and Kim, and by the time we spoke on the phone that night, they had already been contacted by numerous Baptists, none of whom I knew, asking them to help an Iranian Christian who would soon arrive in the U.S.
The Baptist bat signal had reached far and wide and echoed back to Raleigh resoundingly.
Marc and Kim listened to Navid’s story. They told me that Navid would have a home at Welcome House, free of charge, for as long as he needed.
My heart soared. Here was a couple whom I had never met, but who would now take Navid in and welcome him with love and kindness.
After the initial excitement that our plan was taking shape, the daunting nature of our task set in.
Joy and Ron Craig were willing to serve as Navid’s “anchor” family, and Welcome House was willing to provide housing and help him settle into his new life.
But first we had to figure out how to get Navid to Raleigh, and that would involve several international agencies and three governments (U.S., Australia and Papua New Guinea), not an easy task.
Thankfully, Welcome House had a long and established relationship with the North Carolina field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).
Marc and Kim liaised with their contact in the Raleigh office to make a formal request for Navid’s resettlement in North Carolina.
The USCRI in turn worked with the branch of the International Rescue Committee in Thailand who was coordinating the resettlement of refugees from Papua New Guinea to the U.S.
None of us was sure our request to bring Navid to Raleigh would work, so when Navid received the email notifying him that his new home would be in North Carolina, we were all overwhelmed.
Laura Beth Bugg is Assistant Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.