Bethany Christian Services and Care for Migrant Children: Christian Compassion, or Collaboration in Cruelty?

By Melissa Borja

By Sarahmirk, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

After the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents, outraged Americans took to the streets amid a sweltering July heat wave to show their forceful opposition. At the 750 planned “Families belong together” protests across the country, protestors urged those able to vote to do so in November, condemned local governments for collaborating with federal agents, called for elected officials to be held accountable, and, most of all, rebuked President Trump and his policies.

However, the government has not been the only target of these protests; so, too, have the private organizations that have helped to carry out the Trump administration’s controversial policies. Last month, when news broke that migrant children separated from their parents have been taken in by Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan, protestors gathered outside the agency’s offices. Holding signs that described the organization as “kidnappers,” they criticized Bethany for being complicit in the Trump administration’s cruelty toward migrant families and urged it to “End the contract” with the federal government. In an interview with Fox 17 News, one local organizer, Katy Steele Barone, said that she was protesting Bethany because she did not want to “enable” the government’s practice of splitting children from their parents and depriving them of their rights. “Any action we take to help further this agenda makes us a part of the problem,” she said.

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.0

Bethany Christian Services — which has “bringing and keeping families together” emblazoned across the front page of its website — agrees with the protestors that the Trump administration’s policies are unjust. Citing Christian commitments to love thy neighbor and show mercy to “vulnerable strangers” and “those who seek refuge,” the organization stated on its Facebook page on June 15 that it is “deeply troubled and concerned at the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ deterrent policy of separating children from their parents,” which it says will inflict “unnecessary trauma” and cause “devastating long-term effects.” In a later post, Bethany responded to its critics by arguing that it “supports family reunification,” but that until reunification is possible, migrant children were better off placed in “a safe and loving foster home instead of remaining in a center.” Though the organization appears to be trying to find the most compassionate and just response to a difficult situation, the fact remains that Bethany, as a contractor with the federal government, is carrying out the very government policies that it condemns as “simply cruel.” In truth, Bethany’s current predicament is not the first time that Christian agencies have found themselves collaborating with the government and administering policies that they deem morally questionable.

Church-State Cooperation and the American System of Subsidiarity

Bethany Christian Service is one of many religious agencies that have had contracts with the US government to serve immigrants, refugees, and the low-income communities. In the United States, federal, state, and local governments have long relied on private — and often religious — institutions to provide social services at home and humanitarian aid overseas. Giving public funds to “faith-based organizations” provoked significant controversy in the early 2000s when President George W. Bush championed “faith-based initiatives” as a way to improve and extend social services. In reality, the US government had expanded capacity by delegating work to religious agencies and churches for decades before the Bush administration made it a centerpiece of its policy agenda. As the historian Axel Schafer explained, this “subsidiarist” arrangement has made government funds available to religious non-profit organizations since the middle of the twentieth century, and the relationship between church and state only grew closer over subsequent decades. In particular, the War on Poverty drew in new Christian (especially conservative Protestant) service providers that were eager to benefit from government funds. Later, the neoliberal push to diminish public spending on social welfare and humanitarian aid programs caused the government to lean more heavily, and perhaps unfairly, on the financial resources and labor of religious agencies, churches, and volunteers. For example, a 2008 Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service study revealed that funding from the State Department covered only 39 percent of the actual cost of resettling a refugee, a finding that underscored longstanding concerns that the government underfunds the refugee program and exploits the generosity of religious groups. Ultimately, the United States has developed more than an “entanglement” of church and state — rather, there is a codependency of church and state.

And, as with any co-dependent relationship, troubles have arisen. Even though they have a long history of cooperation, church and state still have distinct missions, which can conflict as often as they converge. The tensions inherent in the partnership between Bethany Christian Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement is only one example of what historian Bruce Nichols aptly described as an “uneasy alliance” between government and religious groups.

Religious Agencies, the Vietnam War, and the Moral Dilemmas of Refugee Care

Photograph 111-CC-43912; Photograph of Children Sitting in a Special Forces Jeep; 10/6/1967

To give a historical example, clashing missions produced significant controversy during the Vietnam War. As Scott Flipse argued, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, religious voluntary agencies worked with the US and South Vietnam government on a variety of humanitarian projects to aid displaced war victims. One of these agencies, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), provided over half of the humanitarian and development aid to South Vietnam. In 1967, however, CRS came under fire after a series of reports by Michael Novak, an anti-war journalist writing for the National Catholic Reporter. Novak revealed, among other things, that most of the food rations provided by CRS went to Popular Forces militia and their families, as a form of compensation and as an instrument used by the US military to boost troop morale. In Novak’s view, CRS was not a neutral and non-partisan source of humanitarian aid, but “a willing instrument of US military policy” that was complicit in the United States’ waging of an immoral war. For its part, CRS sidestepped the matter of the morality of the war and instead emphasized its duty to help people in need and maintain good relations with its longtime partner in humanitarian aid, the US government. But the controversy that erupted after Novak’s reports raised a more fundamental question for CRS and for the Catholic Church at large: whether or not pursuing joint humanitarian projects with the US government compromised Catholics’ ability to uphold their own religious commitments to charity and peace, as well as their moral responsibility to hold the US government accountable for unjust and oppressive policies. For the growing number of Catholics who opposed the war in Vietnam, the answer was yes — cooperating with the US government was simply evil.

The CRS controversy exposed the uncomfortable truth that the US government and religious agencies had starkly different missions, and it compelled Christians to question the subsidiarist system in which they had long participated. However, the cooperative relationship between church and state, while perhaps more fragile, endured, and it proved to be extremely important in the response to the Southeast Asian refugee crisis after the Vietnam War. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the US government relied on religious voluntary agencies and churches to resettle the majority of the approximately one million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This resettlement was the most expensive and expansive resettlement project in American history, and one powered mightily by the money, manpower, and material resources of religious organizations. Here, too, Christian agencies found that their moral commitments clashed with government policies. Most notably, churches and religious voluntary agencies aggressively criticized the US government’s reduction of financial support for refugees and its unfair refusal of Central American asylum seekers. (Their anger and frustration eventually led to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s.) Just as CRS had during the 1960s, the religious groups involved in refugee resettlement avoided addressing the bigger matter of the moral implications of the subsidiarist system and instead emphasized their responsibility to help the needy and preserve their relationship with the US government — even if their government partners were pursuing policies that were unjust, immoral, and cruel.

Today, Bethany Christian Services faces a similar issue. In a cooperative relationship born of convenience and cost-effectiveness as much as Christian compassion, Bethany and other religious agencies have long been enthusiastic to work with government to provide care for the “least of these.” The government has been just as enthusiastic to delegate responsibility and reduce its financial commitment. But in collaborating with the Trump administration’s policies, is Bethany complicit in cruelty, or is the organization merely trying to show compassion to migrants amid a crisis? Are both of these truths possible? These questions point to a more fundamental matter with which all religious agencies have grappled for the past half century: what is the moral cost of collaborating with the government, and is this cost worth it? Bethany and all religious agencies must continue to reflect on the possibilities and perils that arise when church and state overlap.


Melissa Borja is an assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is also a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

Part of a series on the use of the Bible to justify inequality and advance social justice.