“One of the most important biblical mandates is to care for the asylum seeker,” says Clint Schnekloth ’95, pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Ark. “It should be a deep and abiding commitment of Christians. I think it’s the right thing to do in a period when there’s a global refugee crisis and the U.S. stands to be a receiving country.”
Schnekloth, being a man of his word—and a man of The Word—takes seriously the charge to care for the asylum seeker. Prior to moving to Arkansas, he’d been involved in refugee resettlement efforts as a pastor in Wisconsin but hadn’t seen a way forward in his new home state. In the fall of 2015, however, when the Syrian refugee crisis started to rise to greater attention in the West, he decided once again to turn word into action. At the time, he says, “There were a number of politicians around the country who made public statements that they didn’t want to receive Syrian refugees in their states. One was the governor of Arkansas. I’d been thinking about it a while, but when Governor Asa Hutchinson made that announcement, I got more energized to say, ‘Let’s not let that be the narrative.’”
That fall, Schnekloth opened a conversation with his community about what help they might provide. By January, the group he’d gathered was completing paperwork for establishing a nonprofit. By the spring, Canopy Northwest Arkansas was undergoing a 360-degree community assessment by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).
Canopy is one of two dozen organizations that works in partnership with LIRS, which in turn is one of nine faith-based refugee resettlement agencies working with the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Canopy provides the services of any agency of its type: it meets basic needs, like food, medicine, and shelter, until refugees are able to provide for themselves; it secures places for families to live, schooling for kids, language classes, doctors, lawyers, counselors, and childcare; it prepares people to enter the American workforce; and it teaches foundational cultural literacy, like where to buy groceries, what to do with household trash, how to mail a letter, or how healthcare works. Canopy also connects every refugee family with a cosponsor—either an individual, family, congregation, or organization—that acts as a meaningful link to the local community during the refugee’s first six months in the U.S.
Arkansas is a good place for refugee resettlement, Schnekloth says, because of its welcoming culture, job availability, and low cost of living and housing. On the flipside, embracing refugees brings a valuable influx of diversity to the region, enhancing the experience of all Arkansans.
Schnekloth still chairs Canopy’s board of directors, but now the agency has five full-time staff members, which allows him to return to full-time pastor work. In 2017, the organization resettled more than 50 refugees, most from Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This year, Canopy has so far welcomed about 40 arrivals.
The response to Canopy’s work has been so robust that LIRS would like to use it as a model for sites throughout the country. “Resettlement is usually tipped toward larger urban areas and handled by paid case workers,” Schnekloth says. “We have a lot of volunteers and can involve them in ways larger agencies don’t. That’s the value that comes from being in a smaller community.”
He continues, “Many of our volunteers are focused on the relational or care side of things, and I’m into those also, but my call is definitely around creating that space, public advocacy as a way of practicing faith in culture and community.”