Director sees Jesus in refugees he meets
As director of World Relief in Spokane, Mark Finney sees Jesus in encounters with immigrants and refugees.
"Each day I pray Jesus will help me meet him that day," he said. "I see Jesus in people who are suffering."
At the U.S. Mexican border recently, he met a man named Jesus.
Last year at an overcrowded refugee camp in Bangladesh, Mark took a photo of a Rohingya woman and her child, "a classical Madonna."
As director, his work is not about being an educated man sitting in a comfortable office. It's everyday work with refugees. He and his staff of 30 help people who have suffered trauma fleeing violence and lived for years in refugee camps settle in Spokane, learn English, find education and job opportunities, adjust to a new culture and go shopping.
Mark helps staff work as a team, coordinating involvement of 400 volunteers, helping staff and volunteers stay healthy as they help refugees navigate paperwork and stresses of their lives in a new system.
He informs the community of the value of having immigrants and refugees living here, and challenges the societal hostility of recent years.
Mark grew up in Coeur d'Alene and graduated in communication from Whitworth University in 2003. He was a youth pastor for two years at First Covenant Church before completing a master of divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. He and his wife, Becky, who also has a master of divinity, spent a year training leaders in Thailand at a church serving recovering sex workers.
Returning to California, Becky was a counselor and Mark completed a doctoral degree in homiletics at Fuller from 2012 to 2017.
In 2015, they moved to Spokane to plant a church, but it didn't work out. He serves as quarter-time pastor at Emmaus Church.
In 2016, he began as a resettlement case worker with World Relief, welcoming families at the airport, taking children for their first day of school and building relationships with families as they settled into Spokane.
Because World Relief has lost some federal funds with fewer refugees being resettled, Mark raises funds to fill the gap. The national World Relief organization contracts with the federal government to support refugees during their first three months. Some who are fast-tracked into employment can receive support for six months.
In 2016, the State Department admitted 110,000 refugees nationally, and Spokane welcomed 597 of them. Since 1992, World Relief has helped resettle more than 10,000 refugees in Spokane.
In contrast, from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, the U.S. will admit only 18,000 refugees. In 2018, World Relief Spokane welcomed just 161 refugees.
"That's a 75 percent cut. Of the 300 refugee resettlement offices, 100 were closed since 2017," he said. "World Relief dropped from 25 offices to 17."
World Relief is among nine agencies resettling refugees. The others are Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, the U.S. Committee for Immigration and Refugee Services, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"The lower numbers of refugees the U.S. is receiving are not a sign that there are fewer refugees. In fact, there are more now—25 million globally—than ever before," Mark said.
When he started as director of World Relief in 2017, he said he did not know much about refugees, even though he had lived abroad, was drawn to cross-cultural relations and felt called to work with people around the world.
"Because the political climate has shifted since I started," he said, "it is important for faith communities to challenge how the country thinks about and acts towards immigrants.
"Most people welcome software engineers coming to work," he said, "but refugees, asylum seekers and Hispanic people are the objects of negative rhetoric and may feel unsafe.
"We help people of faith speak up in this environment that is not shaped by faith values," he said.
A recent Lifeway Research survey found only 12 percent of self-described Evangelical Christians say the Bible is the main source for their attitudes on immigrants and refugees, he said.
"The Bible says much about immigrants and refugees," Mark said. "Most people are more influenced by media than by scriptures."
So he visits congregations to educate members. Members also learn by volunteering.
World Relief partners with 30 faith communities—Christian, Unity, Unitarian and Latter-Day Saints churches, plus Jewish congregations—to resettle new refugees and support them for two years.
"Faith communities who partner with World Relief agree to serve people without pressuring refugees to change their faith, but we are transparent that we at World Relief are motivated by our faith as Christians," Mark said. "As a Christian, I'm comfortable with Jesus' model of helping without expecting people to change their beliefs."
While congregations help resettle some refugees, many have family here. Those from Slavic areas often begin attending one of the 12 Slavic churches in Spokane.
"Faith communities can play a critical role as cultural companions and friends for new refugees as they learn English, and learn about going to stores, parks and schools," Mark said.
Last year, World Relief volunteers and programs served 2,000 people.
World Relief partners with Refugee Connections Spokane, Global Neighborhood Thrift Store and Lutheran Community Services counseling programs. It also partners with schools, clinics and employers that hire refugees, he said.
"While there are fewer refugees, there is more need for education, given the hostility among people who do not know refugees," said Mark, who seeks to learn so he can teach others.
"I learn from every person's story," he said. "It has impact on my faith.
"Ten years ago when my wife and I volunteered at Mother Theresa's center in Calcutta, I saw a quote: 'I look in the face of someone dying and I look into the face of Christ.' As I work with people who suffer, I see Jesus and understand the Gospel in new ways."
To inform 12 Spokane faith leaders about the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, Mark led a service-learning trip to San Diego and Tijuana Oct. 8 to 9.
The leaders were from Presbyterian, Foursquare, Slavic, Evangelical and nondenominational churches, and Whitworth University.
They visited people in churches serving immigrants, asylum-seeking families in Tijuana, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents, who said the system is complex and broken, and there is need for better solutions.
"Because historically most migrants were once men seeking work, CBP agents are not trained to deal with families—women and children. Many cross the desert rather than waiting more than three months to cross the border at Tijuana, where only a handful of asylum-seeking families can enter each day," he said. "Harsh policies do not fix the system, they just increase suffering.'
For Christians called to love God and love neighbors, Mark said Jesus' example of the neighbor in Luke 10 is a Samaritan—someone of another religion and culture on a journey—who aids a vulnerable traveler.
"Churches in Tijuana and San Diego are 'good Samaritans,' acting as Jesus' hands and feet, and as voices advocating for justice," Mark said.
Caring for vulnerable people and seeking justice are not about political sides, but about seeking durable solutions to a crisis, he said.
He said many flee Central and South America to escape violence of governments destabilized by the U.S. and violence of drug cartels/gangs feeding drugs to the U.S. market.
"To reduce migration that endangers families, we need to urge elected officials to stabilize those countries," he said. "Given the labor shortage in the U.S., the immigration system needs to grant visas so people can legally come to work."
Mark and others on the October trip are available to speak to educate people and decrease the hostility toward immigrants and refugees.
World Relief 's annual dinner, "Around the Table," is at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 4, at the Davenport Grand Hotel. Wilmot Collins, the mayor of Helena, Mont., a former refugee from Liberia, West Africa, will speak.
For information, call 484-9829 or visit worldreliefspokane.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2019