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updated: 3/20/2017 9:27 AM

Muslim student grateful for Lombard church's 'Jesus was a refugee' sign

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  • At right, the Rev. Jeffrey Phillips and Zahra Irfan stand with other parishioners of First Church of Lombard in front of the sign that prompted Zahra, a freshman at College Preparatory School of America, to thank the church for its support.

      At right, the Rev. Jeffrey Phillips and Zahra Irfan stand with other parishioners of First Church of Lombard in front of the sign that prompted Zahra, a freshman at College Preparatory School of America, to thank the church for its support.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • First Church of Lombard's sign prompted Muslim teen Zahra Irfan to personally thank the congregation before a recent service.

      First Church of Lombard's sign prompted Muslim teen Zahra Irfan to personally thank the congregation before a recent service.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
By the Rev. Jeffrey Phillips
Special to the Daily Herald

• Editor's note: A sign outside First Church of Lombard read, "Jesus Was a Refugee," prompting a Muslim high school student to appear at a service to thank the congregation for its support after President Donald Trump's executive order on travel. The church's pastor writes about how it came to pass.

First Church of Lombard, United Church of Christ, has a long history of welcoming refugees, starting with two Dutch families in the 1950s, continuing with a Vietnamese family in the 1970s and Cubans from the Mariel boat lift in 1980.

Our faith calls us to continue supporting immigrants and refugees, welcoming them as we would welcome Christ. Immigration and refugee issues have been in the news recently, even before President Trump issued the executive order banning people from seven Muslim nations and all refugees from Syria.

A few days before the executive order, Larry Hebert, the staff member who changes the sign in front of our church, asked if he could put "Jesus Was a Refugee" to show our church's solidarity with immigrants and refugees. The statement refers to the story of Jesus and his parents who fled to Egypt to escape Herod's plot to kill him, found in Matthew 2:13-23. I said it would be OK, but we may get some negative feedback since it is something that's been in the news and is therefore "political."

When the executive order came out on Jan. 27, our sign was already there to tell people that our church rejects fear of foreigners and people of other religions. (First Church has also been building relationships with our Muslim neighbors for the last couple of years through face-to-face meetings, mostly through the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park).

On Friday, Feb. 10, I got an email from Zahra Irfan, a freshman at the College Preparatory School of America, an Islamic high school in Lombard. She said that she appreciated our sign, and wanted to come to the church that Sunday to thank us for the sign and what it represents. In my reply I asked if she wanted to come to my office and thank me as the minister, or speak to the entire congregation. She said that she wanted to speak to everyone!

Zahra arrived with her father, and she spoke during the opening announcements. She spoke with sincerity and maturity. Her message was met with a standing ovation from the congregation.

She also presented us with a lovely box of chocolates that was shared with the congregation after the service that day.

On March 5, the congregation of First Church of Lombard, United Church of Christ voted to become a Just Peace Church, pledging to work for a world of fairness, opportunity, peace, acceptance, plenty, and justice for all. We do this holy work by helping people in need who come to our doors, but we will also do it by challenging and dismantling the social systems and structures that cause poverty, war, bigotry, and environmental ruin. One of those social systems in need of dismantling is Islamophobia and the fear of people from other places. In the weeks leading up to yesterday's vote, the story of our sign and Zahra's visit were mentioned several times by members of our congregation as an example of our commitment to a more just and peaceful world, and why it is important for everyone in our community to know that this is who we are and what we do at First Church of Lombard, United Church of Christ.

This is the Declaration that the congregation approved:

"Giving God thanks for Jesus, the Hebrew prophets, and all who have gone before us on the journey of peace and justice, we are emboldened by the Holy Spirit to declare that First Church of Lombard, United Church of Christ is a Just Peace Church, asking for God's guidance as we live out this Declaration in the life and ministry of our congregation."

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