Scotch Plains church to host refugees

SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ — A church in Scotch Plains is planning to host one or two families of Syrian refugees this year, in an attempt to help them find a new home in Union County and escape the devastating conflict that’s torn apart their home country.

The gesture continues a decades-long tradition at Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, which has hosted foreign families displaced by war since the congregation aided a Vietnamese family in the 1970s, according to a statement issued by the church.

Relationships with that family, says pastor Cynthia Cochran-Carney, are still strong today, and the church hopes to foster a similar connection with five to 10 of the 10,000 Syrians who are being admitted into the United States in 2016, a number decided last year by president Barack Obama’s administration.

In order to decide how the church can become a host site, Cochran-Carney has formed a group called the Refugee Assistance Partners, in coordination with other faith leaders in the area, which regularly meets to make sure everything gets sorted out.

“The congregation really feels our calling comes from Jesus’s words in Matthew 25. If people are hungry, need shelter and come from a place of conflict like Syria, we want to be part of a larger community effort to welcome them,” said Cochran-Carney. “The local school district is on board with this and the mayor was at a recent meeting. People are very receptive and we are hopeful that in the next few months we will be organized, with Presbyterians and Episcopalians leading the way to bring families into our community.”

Recent terrorist attacks, including the infamous Paris bombings Nov. 13, 2015, have made some political groups around the country wary of Syrian refugees, including some who believe the United States shouldn’t admit anyone from Syria — or that, if it does, government agencies should more strictly regularly who is let in.

In November, more than half of the country’s governors — almost all of them Republicans — said they opposed letting Syrian refugees into their states, citing potential safety risks. One of the suspects believed to be involved in the Paris attacks, one of the most deadly acts of terrorism ever carried out on European soil, had entered Europe in a wave of Syrian refugees.

Leadership at Willow Grove Presbyterian Church is aware of those concerns, but Cochran-Carney doesn’t believe terrorists are among the refugees being admitted into the country.

“Some people ask, ‘How can you be sure you aren’t harboring terrorists?’ and the Church World Services director has explained the process of bringing refugees here,” said Cochran-Carney. “Part of what they realize is that the people coming to New Jersey aren’t the people we’ve seen on TV. These are people who have applied to come here as far back as a year ago.”

The resettlement process is run by multiple, high-level agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, and “by the time a family is approved and they have been vetted and have gone through multiple background checks,” says Cochran-Carney. That even includes a background check from a non-government group called Church World Services, which set up shop in Jersey City last year to help Syrian refugees resettle in New Jersey.

“There are nine agencies that have been approved by the federal government through which refugees can come into our country. Refugees are subject to the strictest form of security screening before they are allowed to enter the U.S. with extensive background, security and health checks,” said Cochran-Carney. “We are a smaller church of about 100 members but we are very committed to missions and believe we are called to be involved in this.”