President Trump’s executive order last Friday making major changes to America’s immigration policies was met with silence by many evangelical leaders, but it also propelled others to speak out on behalf of refugees, including popular evangelical author Ann Voskamp. She traveled from her family’s pig farm in Canada to join about 200 other people Thursday who prayed for refugees outside the Washington hotel where Trump was attending the National Prayer Breakfast.
“By God’s grace, I’ve done nothing to be born in the West,” Voskamp said. “How can I extend that grace to those who are in dire need?”
Voskamp, who has a huge following of conservative evangelicals in the United States and whose book “One Thousand Gifts” sold 1 million copies, is well aware that she has waded into hot political territory. An Instagram photo on Thursday drew backlash from some of her fans, including one who said, “I love you dearly and love your books … but I respectfully don’t think you should enter into this fray.”
While Voskamp stood outside the Washington Hilton holding a sign that read “We Welcome Refugees,” Trump stood inside the hotel, joking about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings as host of “The Apprentice” and telling the audience, “We need security.”
“There are those who would seek to enter our country for the purpose of spreading violence, or oppressing other people based upon their faith or their lifestyle,” Trump told the audience. “Not right. We will not allow a beachhead of intolerance to spread in our nation.”
Although Catholic leaders have issued forceful criticism of Trump’s executive order, most evangelical megachurch pastors and leaders have been relatively silent on the action. Those who did speak out tried to balance the call for a secure nation while extending a hand to refugees fleeing for their lives.
Historically, Catholics, Mormons and evangelicals have long hosted ministries in the United States to help refugees and held religious liberty for all in high esteem. But in the name of national security, some have begun to see refugees as a potential threat. When asked what she thought of Trump’s executive order, Voskamp grew quiet, knowing she was entering dicey territory. She said she understands and appreciates national security concerns.
“I don’t think security negates compassion,” Voskamp said. “We have to be motivated by compassion, not by fear.”
Voskamp didn’t want to use Trump’s name, saying that it polarizes the issue. “As soon as we bring someone’s name into the conversation, it can become a fence-dividing conversation,” she said. “I want to engage issues, big ideas and not anyone’s name.”
Voskamp said she is especially troubled by the indefinite ban of Syrian refugees in light of “what we’ve witnessed as a modern-day Holocaust.”
The question of whether to welcome refugees to the United States did not become a hot-button issue for conservative religious voters until the past few years. When Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang of the evangelical ministry World Relief released a book about immigration in 2009 called “Welcoming the Stranger,” Soerens said they barely touched on refugees because that policy was not seen as controversial. He points to the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., as moments when misinformation began to spread.
Soerens said he and Yang have worked with more than 1,000 churches in the past two years and have not had one church back out of their ministry to refugees. However, he said, “I have been called on much more frequently to help a missions pastor respond to questions from an individual or two in the congregation who did not believe the church should be involved in ‘importing terrorism.’ ”
He believes that many Americans, including many evangelicals, do not understand the resettlement process in America. Some point to Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived to seek asylum without being vetted first. In contrast, the United States has received less than 20,000 Syrian refugees, and more than 70 percent of them are women or children 13 years old or younger.
“Our theology is best expressed by our hospitality, by how well we open our doors and hearts in lives, especially to those who are fleeing our worst nightmares,” Voskamp said. Refugees already go through an “extreme vetting process,” she said, despite Trump’s call for even more scrutiny.
Eight in 10 white evangelicals voted for Trump, according to exit polls, many of whom said they wanted a president who would appoint a Supreme Court justice who opposed abortion rights and wanted someone who would advocate for religious freedom. And of religious groups who were polled by the Pew Research Center in October, evangelicals were the most likely to say the United States is not responsible for accepting Syrian refugees.
Ronnie Floyd, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, attended the prayer breakfast Thursday, and his Arkansas megachurch has a ministry to refugees. He said in an interview, however, that he supports Trump’s executive order suspending refugee admissions, citing national security concerns.
“We do not advise the government regarding issues of national security, and they do not advise us on who and how we serve,” Floyd said.
The tension between church and state and ministry and security has flared over the issue of refugees, especially for evangelicals. In light of the U.S. election and attitudes toward refugees, Voskamp said she has struggled with the label “evangelical” in recent months, even though she calls herself one.
“What does it mean to be evangelical in this particular climate? At certain times, it’s hard to think, wait, if that’s what evangelical means, is that what I am?” she said. “That doesn’t mean comfortable Christianity.”
Voskamp knows that her activism could cost her fans. She released a book last fall called “The Broken Way,” and she chose not to wade into the 2016 election, saying that it was a “family discussion” for Americans to work out.
“I think it was a time to pause, to listen well, to listen to people’s perspectives and to try to understand well,” she said. “Beyond the walls of its church, the world is looking at our witness. Does the church care about the oppressed and the broken? Or is the church only concerned about holding the keys? Are we willing to lay down our lives?”
After photos of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as his family tried to flee Syria, went viral in 2015, Voskamp co-founded an organization called We Welcome Refugees in partnership with World Relief and her friend Vickie Reddy, who runs the Justice Conference, which attracts evangelicals interested in social justice issues. On Thursday, Voskamp joined Reddy and other evangelical influencers like Michael Wear and Bob Goff, as well as people from other religious traditions.
In November, Voskamp’s family began sponsoring a Muslim Syrian family, helping to make sure they adjust to Canada’s educational system, employment, medical care, English lessons and other needs. She said the family attends church with her family. “You don’t have to do that,” she said she tells them, but they insist on coming out of respect for her family.
“They talk about their cousins who are starving, who are eating grass, who have gone days without eating,” Voskamp said. She said her family brought the refugee family to the airport to welcome other Syrian refugee families to the United States.
Voskamp also said she is heartened that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has opened Canadian borders to more refugees.
“This particular issue on refugees isn’t so much about pro- or anti- a particular politician or political party; this is about for the church,” she said. “It would be very easy for the church to grow more divisive on this issue. There has to be a way forward to hold on to this issue regardless of our own political leanings.”