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Pro-Life series: Welcoming Refugees

Refugees are in the news these days, and Christians are responding. We hear about the crisis and we want to help. Almost every day I'm asked by people who know I work with refugees, "When will the Syrians come here? And how many will we get?" They want to help...give money, make a phone call. We're good at responding to a crisis. I'm glad about that, but I also wonder how long it will last—only as long as the media keeps reporting it? And after we've responded by allowing more refugees in and helped them get started, who will be their friends? In the past few years, my answer to that question has been, "I will," because for me being pro-life has come to mean being a friend to the refugee, and led me to start a ministry whose vision is to help refugees thrive in their new homeland.

My own story began when I was challenged at a local church's mission conference to 'think global and act local'. The best option for acting local was mentoring a refugee family, so I signed up. It seemed like a good family project, and I only needed to make a 6 month commitment.

The truth is that it took at least 6 months to begin to feel like a friend to the first woman I mentored. The language barrier was real. It would have been easy to quit at the end of the 6 months. But there was something about spending time with my Sudanese friend that touched my heart—the chance to connect with another woman from the other side of the world over those things we had in common: husbands, kids, having babies. Every time we met I learned a little bit more about her, and I learned a little more about myself. One day I tried to give her an old coat I no longer wanted. She rejected it, and helped me see how selfish I was to give a gift of my junk to my new friend. I taught Sawsan a little English, and she made me tea and she taught me how to be a real friend. We didn't give up.

It took about 3 years before I was ready to mentor a new family, and this time I was able to convince my small group to join in mentoring a Burmese Karen family. It turned out that Po Eh and Ni Doh Paw were the first Christian Karen family to come to our city, so in the months that followed, we welcomed the Karen people who came after them into our community, into our church, and into our lives and hearts. Po visited the new families and asked if they were Christian like him. They would say "Yes, but we don't know where to worship." "My sister Theresa will take to you church," Po would tell them. And we did. Until they began driving, we transported up to 40 people to church every Sunday.

In time we were able to get a Sea to Sea grant through World Renew that we used to rent an apartment in the complex where most of the new arrivals were placed. There was enough money in that grant to pay the rent, utilities, and internet for 9 months. We taught English classes during the day, offered free internet to our refugee friends, and helped kids with their homework after school.

Today we call that ministry the Family Learning Center. The one bedroom apartment has been replaced by two side by side 2-bedroom apartments, and it is its own non-profit, separate from our church, with several other churches also supporting the ministry. We offer 4 different levels of English classes and we work closely with the school district to support the education of the kids. We're always challenged to find enough volunteers and money, and I don't get to sit and drink tea as often as I'd like, but we're known in the community as a friend to the refugees, and we take great joy in seeing them thrive.

It would be easy to feel a lot of pride about what we've begun, as if this were my plan all along. That's far from the truth. I, and the people who joined me in this ministry, just kept taking the next step in faith. I do believe, though, that this ministry was in God's plan.  I often tell people that this is the only thing I've been part of where I've felt pulled along by God. We didn't set out to start a ministry. We only made ourselves available and walked through the doors that God held open, because caring for these people who have been unsettled and displaced is close to the heart of God. They are the strangers that Jesus talked about in Matthew 25. They are strangers whom God wants me to welcome and love, not as projects to rescue or give money to, but as friends and neighbors to journey with, and maybe, as we walk together, some will also come to know that their real home, like mine, is with God.

[Image: Flickr user Mo Riza]


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