Margaret Montgomery, 88, helped refugees settle in U.S.

Margaret Montgomery opened her heart and her home to refugees from all over the world. For many of them, she and her husband, Howard, were their introduction to America, and it was a warmly welcoming one.

In part, this was a function of her work. She was director of refugee resettlement services throughout the Southeast for the Presbyterian Church USA and later for the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta. But it was also her vocation throughout her adult life. Her son the Rev. Stephen Montgomery of Memphis, called it "radical hospitality -- as exemplified in Matthew 25:35-36, where Jesus talks about giving the stranger food, clothing and shelter."

In both jobs, Mrs. Montgomery oversaw and coordinated the efforts of individual churches that sponsored refugees, both individuals and families. While this could be a difficult, even expensive responsibility for the churches, it was her belief they benefited as much as the people they helped. As she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 1992 interview: "It binds the church together. It's a hands-on ministry they can see."

Margaret Richey Montgomery, 88, died of cancer Monday at her Decatur home. Her memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at Central Presbyterian Church. Her body was donated to the Emory University School of Medicine. Contributions in her name may be made to the Memorial Fund of Central Presbyterian Church.

One refugee family, the Nicholases from Sri Lanka, is especially grateful for Mrs. Montgomery's help.

"Margaret was instrumental in bringing me and my family to Atlanta in March of 1987," said Nilkanthi Nicholas, now living in Louisville, Ky. "She even mounted a campaign for the U.S. government to grant us asylum. I was Sinhalese and my husband was Tamil (a mixed marriage that marked the couple and their children as targets in the fighting between Sri Lanka's two major ethnic groups)."

Mrs. Montgomery got a job as a secretary and interpreter for Mrs. Nicholas the second day of her arrival. The following day the two of them flew to New York to attend a Presbyterian meeting. "I was seated up front in a room with 600 or so people, and as the speaker droned on, I fell asleep. Margaret understood about my jet lag and let me doze. She had such wonderful empathy," Mrs. Nicholas said.

Her kindness extended to Mrs. Nicholas' husband and children. "She got my children in activities at Central Presbyterian Church and summer camps, and she made it possible for my husband, who was an engineer in Sri Lanka, to restart his schooling at Georgia State University and chart a new career," Mrs. Nicholas said.

"Margaret had a special gift for making people feel at home, which was a real plus in her line of work," said Belle McMaster of Decatur, a former director of corporate and social mission for the Presbyterian Church USA. "I remember once she brought a Guatemalan family to a church pig roast, introduced them all around and immediately made them feel comfortable in their new surroundings."

Hosting refugee families in her home was nothing new for Mrs. Montgomery. Previously she and her husband welcomed international students for dinners and often for overnight stays. "I was never sure on those occasions when I came home from college just who I might be sharing my room with," her son said.

When she wasn't at work or tending to family, Mrs. Montgomery devoted herself to Central Presbyterian Church. She was an elder, an alto in the choir and director of the Choral Guild, an unofficial greeter of all newcomers, and one of the founders of the church's homeless shelter.

Her pastor for many years, the Rev. C.P. Enniss of Atlanta, now retired, said of her, "In every dimension of her life, Margaret seemed to have an ear for the cries and an eye for the hurts of those whom others often seemed to overlook: children, the poor, the hungry and homeless, refugees, all those deprived of a voice."

Survivors include her husband, Howard Montgomery; a daughter, Dorothy Murphy of Atlanta; two other sons, the Rev. James Montgomery of Decatur, Ill., and the Rev. David Montgomery of Murray, Ky.; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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