This week in BisMan, refugee resettlement has been a hot topic. I think we should examine how we got to this point, what happened at Monday’s Burleigh County Commission meeting, and where to go from here.
On Sept. 26, President Trump issued an executive order that our federal government “should resettle refugees only in those jurisdictions in which both the State and local governments have consented.” On Nov. 19, Gov. Doug Burgum issued his own executive order, stating: “North Dakota has had success at integrating refugees … North Dakota consents to receive resettlement refugees, in conjunction with the continued assent and cooperation of local jurisdictions in our state.”
Lutheran Social Services, the designated state refugee coordinator, is taking appropriate steps in response. Shirley Dykshoorn, their vice president of senior and humanitarian services, was put on the agenda for Monday’s meeting. She is seeking the consent needed for settlement of roughly 24 (or fewer) new refugees in Bismarck, most of them Congolese.
The violence that Congolese refugees are fleeing is unimaginable to most of us. These refugees never wanted to leave their homes. Any refugees coming our way have been vetted and selected as a good fit for our community. They simply want to survive in peace.
In the days leading up to the meeting, its agenda was heavily shared and discussed on social media. Despite being descended from immigrants who sought refuge from economic devastation and religious persecution, many BisMan residents want no part in supporting 21st century refugees.
At 5 p.m. on Monday, the Tom Baker Room in the City/County Building was packed. A chaplain opened the meeting with a Christian prayer, ending it by addressing God and saying, “in your son’s name.” This was an obvious reference to Jesus.
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Admittedly, it’s questionable for any American government to identify with a specific religion. Our nation’s separation of church and state seems at odds with the commission identifying as Christian. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll set aside this church-state separation concern. In fact, I’m going to bring up Jesus again. I think that’s fair, given that the commission brought up Jesus first.
Ultimately, after only several minutes of discussion, the refugee resettlement portion of the meeting was ended. It had violated the requirements of an open meeting. The Tom Baker Room was too small for the crowd, so many watched and listened remotely from inside the building. However, the televised audio was not working. If the meeting cannot be heard, it is not open.
The commission's vote on refugee resettlement has been rescheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Horizon Middle School.
Now that our community has more time to decide how to proceed, I’d like to pose a question: What would Jesus do?
According to a Christian framework, we’re awaiting the second coming of Jesus. But, according to Jesus, he also comes to us in ordinary ways every day. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus explains:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory … the King will say to those on his right … ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Jesus goes on to explain that those who fail to help “the least of these” are in for a rude awakening. Jesus equates himself with humans who are crushed by misfortune. To reject our fellow humans is to reject Jesus himself.
If Christians are right and Jesus is coming back, he will hold us accountable. Our Bismarck-Mandan-Lincoln urban population is around 100,000, with low unemployment. We can certainly integrate 20 or so international newcomers. How would we explain ourselves if we’ve slammed a door in the faces of two dozen refugees? Let’s not slam the door. Let’s open our hearts. For what it’s worth, it’s what Jesus would do.
Ellie Shockley is a social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan.