Reverend Bill Bigger, the pastor of Hope Valley Baptist Church, lives up to his name. At six feet, three inches (1.9 metres) tall, he easily fills a room and is not one to shy away from a challenge.
Convinced that more needs to be done to help those fleeing wars and persecution, he persuaded his congregation in this southern city to turn a rundown brick home on church property into a haven for refugees.
“My flock is more conservative than I am,” Bigger says, admitting that his plan to temporarily shelter refugees in the aptly named Hope House, adjacent to the church building itself, stirred an uproar in his congregation.
“I don’t see this as a risk for us except that it calls us to invest our time and our energy for caring for people.”
That is because the Hope Valley Baptist Church is in Durham, North Carolina, a state that veers right on a range of political issues.
In a survey this year, the Pew Research Center found that that 76 per cent of white evangelicals – the profile of many in the Hope Valley congregation – approved of efforts to halt admittance of refugees from some Muslim countries.
“There were absolutely some folks scared based on rhetoric they were hearing,” Bigger explains. “They would ask: ‘What is the likelihood of terrorists getting through the process?’”
“I certainly wouldn’t want to endanger our community – I certainly wouldn’t want to put members at risk in any way,” Bigger recalls telling his flock. “I don’t see this as a risk for us except that it calls us to invest our time and our energy for caring for people.”
In answer to his parishioners’ questions, he offered up stories of real people and real facts. “We tried to share the facts about the number of people who have been coming into our community in recent years and have been settling here, have been making a living, have been establishing their families and haven’t caused any trouble.”
Families like those of 16-year-old John Hertier, one of the first tenants of Hope House. He and his mother, Odette, and 13-year-old sister, Mariam, moved from across town after Odette fell ill and the church offered them the spot.
The family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011. For five years, they lived in Kenya, waiting to be vetted and resettled, before finally traveling to the United States to start a new life in North Carolina.
It took months of dialogue and generous donations from the community to make Hope House happen. When it did, a local contractor lent his expertise and a carpenter built bunk beds for the children.
In March 2017, Hope House finally became a home. The facility will serve as a way station for refugees who are resettled to North Carolina but struggle to find a long-term family home.
"I preached … about what I see as the biblical call to welcome the stranger, to be a neighbor to people."
Although it is only temporary, Hope House gives the Hertier family the chance to make new friends and integrate. Jacqueline Allen, a local retiree, works with Odette on her English twice a week. Cara Bolton, who helped Pastor Bigger convince others to create Hope House, often hangs out with John, Mariam and Odette. “Just last week we had a pizza party, danced and talked,” she says.
“We had conversations with folks who were convinced refugees were coming to take over our way of life,” Bigger says. “We had about a four- or five-month discussion and discernment and even prayer process. I preached, not regularly but several times, about what I see as the biblical call to welcome the stranger, to be a neighbor to people, no matter what their backgrounds. I have told them that refugees are not causing danger but they are escaping fear and that they are the ones at risk.”
Bigger says the world’s growing refugee crisis requires action. “My conviction is that the church needs to be involved,” he concludes. “People will say to me: ‘Shouldn’t we take care of our own?’ I say: ‘It is not an either-or, but a both-and.’”