A few years ago, when Karen Schreck looked out her bedroom window, she saw an untended garden patch in her backyard wasting away. Then a neighbor asked if she might be willing to open her yard up to a refugee couple from Burundi, who used to farm before they were displaced. Schreck said yes, and now, many years later she and her husband have enjoyed season after season of fresh beans, as well as the friendship of their Burundi neighbors.
Schreck is the award-winning author of the novel Broken Ground, which deals with themes of migration, among others. She has a doctorate from the University of Illinois in Chicago and has served as a visiting professor at Wheaton College, a renowned Evangelical institution. Wheaton is known to be an affluent, conservative suburb with one of the highest number of churches per capita. But behind the picturesque church buildings, manicured lawns, and rising property values, a growing refugee and immigrant population has found sanctuary among the town’s Christian population.
I really believe the Christian faith is about being open-armed and open- hearted.
This demographic shift has been driven in part by a local branch of World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest Evangelical lobbying group in America. World Relief operates globally, and its Wheaton office often partners with local churches to help refugees relocate and start new lives in the United States. The office also provides legal services for immigrants seeking documentation. Like many Christians in Wheaton, Schreck’s interactions with refugees and immigrants through her religious network have only strengthened her belief that immigration reform is one of the most urgent moral matters of our time.
Schreck’s convictions run deep, as immigration impacts so many parts of her life and her community. She has adopted her two children from Guatemala. Her husband, who teaches photography at Wheaton College, has introduced his students to immigrants farming in other people’s yards across the suburb. The couple also hosts communal feasts for refugees and others in the community. During these events, they gather together over food, music, and dancing.
This is what a Christian community should look like, she explains, and points to Jesus as “the most vivid example of a welcoming person.” She says this outreach is “one of the things that makes me feel most connected to my faith.” The New Testament of the Bible “dismantles bloodlines and borders. I really believe the Christian faith is about being open-armed and open- hearted.”
Everyone in the community benefits from this Christian calling, Schreck says, pointing to the lifelong friendships she has gained, the amazing farm-fresh meals she has shared, and the new community that has blossomed out of these relationships. “I think our culture is much richer” when it welcomes and learns from people of other cultures, says Schreck. “When they talk about making America great again, that’s what will make America great. We’re not a melting pot, but a bouillabaisse,” where everyone brings their distinct culture to the mix.