Matthew Soerens has spent more than 10 years working with refugees and explaining their plight to evangelicals. In 2009, he co-wrote "Welcoming the Stranger; Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate," and is currently updating it. As the US director for church mobilization for World Relief, he interacts daily with church leaders who want to minister to immigrants and refugees.
"Our experience has been evangelicals love refugees," he told CBN News "they're fleeing persecution, many are Christians. We never really had trouble finding local churches that wanted to welcome refugees."
Still, Soerens has also observed growing anxiety about refugees in the evangelical community, especially in the last 5 years. He believes it centers around a "mistaken assumption that all refugees are Muslim, coming from the Middle East and that the US doesn't have an accurate vetting process."
But Soerens was still jarred by a Washington Post story Thursday that highlighted a key finding about evangelicals in a recent Pew Research Center poll. The poll found that the number of Americans who think the US has a responsibility to welcome refugees has dropped from 56 percent in early 2017 to 51 percent this year.
The poll also found that self-identified white evangelical Protestants are the demographic group least likely to support refugees. Just 25 percent said the US has a responsibility to welcome them.
Many evangelical leaders responded to the story with shock and dismay. InterVarsity's Greg Jao said he was "grieving that fellow believers demonstrate the least compassion and missional-mindedness of any demographic group."
Danny Akin, the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said "this is heartbreaking and embarrassing. This is not the spirit of our Lord Jesus."
Ironically, evangelicals are known for fighting for immigrant rights through organizations like the Evangelical Immigration Table. They've also led the way in welcoming refugees to the U.S.
Soerens says that World Relief has partnered with 1,1817 local churches in the last three years to minister to newly-arrived refugees. That number includes 253 new churches getting involved in the last year.
Former Obama faith advisor Michael Wear noted Thursday that "evangelical institutions (that are often funded by evangelicals with that same view) are on the frontlines serving and advocating for immigrants and refugees."
But the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for "low immigration," sees another dynamic at play: a disparity between the views of faith leaders and those in the pews.
In response to the Pew finding, senior researcher Nayla Rush said, "Religious leaders and heads of faith-based organizations need to listen to their own constituents." She cites a 2009 Zogby poll that shows members of religious denominations often disagree with their leaders about illegal immigration and show strong support for reducing overall immigration.
Soerens says he's not seeing any churches pull back from refugee ministry but notes it's not uncommon to hear from missions pastors who want help in relating to someone in the church who opposes its refugee ministry.
But that's just one of Soeren's issues right now. He and other faith groups that welcome refugees are also concerned about the declining number of refugees that the U.S. is currently admitting. The US will likely resettle the lowest number of refugees this year since it started the refugee admissions program in 1980. That's despite a record number of refugees in the world, estimated at 22 million according to World Relief.
Soerens said that churches that want to be more involved with refugees sometimes get upset with World Relief. "Churches get frustrated with us, 'what do you mean we can't go pick up a family at the airport next week?'" he explained.
Soerens said many World Relief regional offices have warehouses full of materials to to help house refugees when they arrive.