Ralston Deffenbaugh: “Outstanding Friend of Immigrants”

Seafarers International House, Right of Asylum event, New York City, October 23, 2014. Dr. Allen Keller, Rev. Marsh Luther Drege (executive director), Ralston Deffenbaugh. Photo: LIRS
Seafarers International House, Right of Asylum event, New York City, October 23, 2014. Dr. Allen Keller, Rev. Marsh Luther Drege (executive director), Ralston Deffenbaugh. Photo: LIRS

By Ralston Deffenbaugh

It was a joy for me to be back in New York City. On 22 October, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) had a reception to celebrate its 75th anniversary—75 years of helping to carry out the church’s ministry of welcoming the stranger. I headed up LIRS from 1991 to 2009. Through LIRS’ service and advocacy, Lutherans have resettled more than 500,000 refugees in the USA, and counting!

Then, on 23 October, the Seafarers International House held its annual Right of Asylum event. I was one of two recipients of the Outstanding Friend of Immigrants award, along with Dr. Allen S. Keller, associate professor of medicine and director of the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture. Here are my remarks at that event:

Hospitality: this is a theme that runs throughout both the Hebrew scriptures—the Old Testament—and the New Testament. Perhaps its most powerful expression comes from Matthew 25, where Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the stranger. He says that when you welcome the stranger, you welcome him.

This ministry of hospitality is at the base of what is done through the Seafarers International House.

Welcoming the stranger is also at the base of the ministry of the agency I had the privilege to lead for 18 years, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. LIRS is the U.S. Lutheran churches’ agency for service and advocacy on behalf of refugees being resettled, asylum seekers, unaccompanied refugee and migrant children, and persons in immigration detention.

It was a privilege to work together with the Seafarers House as you opened your doors to provide safe shelter and loving care for asylum seekers and for persons who have just been released from immigration detention. In doing so, you have not only extended a helping and welcoming hand to migrant people in need. You have also come closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.

I also want to express what an honor it is to receive this award together with Dr. Allen Keller. His work on behalf of victims of torture has been inspiring. His healing hand has been effective not only through the medical care provided by him and his staff, but also through his legal testimony in asylum hearings and through his advocacy both for the victims of torture and for an end to torture altogether.

As a final word, I want to say what a privilege it has been for me to help carry on the special Lutheran work for refugees and migrants. At the close of World War II, one out of every six Lutherans in the world was a refugee or a displaced person. Lutherans elsewhere in the world organized themselves through The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and its related agencies to respond to that need. Today that work continues. LWF World Service is serving nearly 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons. The LWF is the largest faith-based partner of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the fifth-largest overall.

In New York, New Jersey and New England, the Seafarers International House is part of that ministry. Thank you!

Ralston Deffenbaugh is a human rights lawyer working for the church. He currently serves as the LWF Assistant General Secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.