3 things to ponder

I was introduced to a friend’s mother-in-law after worship this morning. She will be leading a short-term team to serve refugees in Athens with another mission agency later this year. She thinks this might be something God is calling her into in a long term capacity. She was looking for helpful insights.

Her time was limited. So lucky her. At risk of being blunt and possibly rude, I unloaded three things for her to ponder in rapid succession.

First, I encouraged her to see refugees as more than people in need. See them as an important part of the solution to the many challenges they face. See them as partners. I’ve never met a person that likes to be pitied.

I explained how de-humanizing it is for people to be treated only as people in need. Because of this, refugees often feel others view them as less than human. Well-meaning transactional ministries (e.g. I give them something that they need and they take it) can suck the air out of a soul.

But it is re-humanizing when we affirm them as people of value with something worthwhile to offer. This is why is it so important to receive their often generous hospitality. They have something beautiful to give – and we might just need it.

Second, at risk of sounding like a heretic, I shared with her how many Christians frame refugee ministry primarily as an opportunity to “reach” people from “unreached” countries with the gospel. While I am in no way saying it is bad or wrong to share Jesus with refugees, I am saying that if that is the primary reason we pursue them we may well fail to truly love them.

We dare not be like the many people out there who feed on vulnerable people. They see their vulnerability as an opportunity to further their personal agenda. Some exploit refugees for political gain. Some lure refugees and asylum seekers into their human trafficking or drug smuggling rackets. Some exploit and abuse them for their own twisted ego trip or pleasure. Others see their vulnerability as an opportunity to recruit them into their religious group. All of these people see refugees as a means to further their own agenda.

As followers of Jesus, we should step into their lives without an agenda beyond letting them know that we care for them and that spending time with them is valuable in and of itself. Rather than seeing them as “unreached people” we need to see them as people – people caught up in the suffering and chaos of a world turned upside down and inside out. People in a world in which they have been robbed of place.

I began comparing refugee ministry to that of going to a hospital to visit people who are terminally ill. I was going to ask if she thought it was appropriate to go with the primary agenda of preaching the gospel. But she stopped me in my tracks.

I’m a nurse. I get it.

Third, I gave her one parting shot before we parted ways. Read the story of Hagar – camp out in it for a while.

She told me that she had just been reading it. I quickly underlined a couple of often overlooked aspects of the story of Hagar’s forced displacement.

The gospel to Hagar was that God hears, God sees and God cares. God told her to name her baby “Ishmael” – God Hears. She named the place God spoke to her “Beer Lahai Roi” – The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. She even did what no one else in Scripture did. She named God! El Roi – “God Who Sees”. These truths changed everything for Hagar. And this is a great starting point when sharing gospel with forcibly displaced people today.

Time was up.

Our brief encounter encouraged me this morning. I could see God is at work in her heart as she prepares to take a team of people into the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in Athens. May the refugees they meet experience the love of God and the hope of Jesus as this team goes to love them.

Meeting Jesus on the way

Photo: Refugee camp on the Aegean Sea (Behind the fencing and cement pillars topped with barbed wire)

We stood talking through the bars of the gate behind which security guards stood in their bullet proof vests. They refused to let us in, even though we were with friends who presently call the refugee camp behind the bars and barbed wire walls their home. It was an oppressive sight.

Our friends are young believers in Jesus. The denial to allow us to enter the camp to visit them in their container-converted-into-a-shelter was another dehumanizing moment. The father said how hard it is to feel human in such conditions. The weight of his words was almost visible.

The mother told us how much their Persian fellowship in Athens means to her and her family. They gather with other refugees in a home outside of the camp – in a home where they are welcomed, valued and treated as human. It is a fellowship of travelers from distant nations who have found Jesus to be a faithful friend in every circumstance.

We had joined their gathering the night before. The living room was full of refugees – brothers and sisters from Iran and Afghanistan. They shared how much Jesus means to them. Some spoke of the difficulties of their journey – and then said how it has all been worth it because they met Jesus on the way.

Amen.

Photo: Refugee camp entrance – down the path and through the barred entrance

To Athens

I depart for Athens tomorrow to visit the ministry of One Heart, a Christian agency that is serving refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. The founder and director is a former refugee herself. Originally from Iran, she embraced Jesus while in Athens many years ago. We know each other from back when I served with International Teams.

She initially reached out to me a few months ago as her ministry was going through some major changes. As we talked it became apparent that our missions have a lot in common. I couldn’t help but think that if IAFR went to start a ministry in Greece, it would probably look a lot like what One Heart is doing.

We began to explore whether One Heart and IAFR might mutually benefit from a ministry partnership that included IAFR sending them missionaries and helping raise funds for select ministry projects in Greece.

And so my bags are packed and I will soon get a firsthand view of the ministry of One Heart together with our IAFR Europe Regional Leader (Paul Sydnor).

In the 20th Century it seems that missions assumed the way to develop was to establish themselves in as many countries as possible. I think the 21st Century is calling missions like IAFR to pursue a different paradigm – that of forming strategic partnerships with like-minded missions and agencies in other countries.

A call from Jakarta

A group of churches in Jakarta (Indonesia) asked IAFR to meet with them on a Zoom conference call this past week. They have all found themselves engaging in refugee ministry and feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. The purpose of the call was to bring them together for the first time around this issue – and to get some perspective from IAFR. Rachel Uthmann (IAFR Director of Training) and I had the privilege of meeting with them for a couple of hours.

I was encouraged to hear how these churches are doing what they can to help asylum-seekers survive while in Jakarta. As Indonesia is not a signer of the UN Convention on Refugees, the situation for asylum seekers and refugees is extremely tenuous. They are not legally allowed to work and they are technically not supposed to be in country. Yet there are an estimated 14,000 women, children and men seeking refuge there. Most are from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there are also refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea ,Somalia and other countries.

Churches are hosting refugee fellowships, teaching English, helping with food and housing, and sharing the gospel with them. They are struggling with identifying a clear goal for their ministries as there doesn’t seem to be an option for refugees to stay or for them to move on. There isn’t a pathway for them to legalize their status and rebuild their lives. They are stuck in survival mode.

What does it look like for local churches to minister to such people in the long term?

The convener of the call asked IAFR if we would consider coming to Jakarta to meet with churches there and offer some basic training. Indeed we are.

Violence in Nairobi

After an extended season of relative quiet, Nairobi suffered a terrorist attack today. The dust is still settling, so the death toll remains uncertain.

As far as I know, our many friends there were not among the victims. Yet I know any such attack causes everyone a measure of trauma.

Violence. It is the ultimate fruit of sin when it has matured. Cain’s sin moved him to kill Abel. Violence was so prevalent at one time that God grieved he made us. He gave us another chance after the flood. When God later walked among us, the religious and political powers of the day turned on him in extreme violence. And yet, among Jesus’ final words were “Father, forgive them.”

Most of the refugees we serve are victims of unchecked violence in their homelands. They see no alternative but to flee to another country in hope of finding safety.

Around 1/2 million refugees have sought temporary refuge in Kenya. I have little doubt that today’s violence in Nairobi awakened old fears.

Maranatha. Lord Jesus, come.

Click here to read a related news report.

Pioneering

I’m going to spend most of my day tomorrow with Kelsey, a twenty-something who joined IAFR last year to serve in Ventimiglia, Italy – an unknown smallish Italian city on the border with France.

Kelsey was with the IAFR research team that stumbled upon Ventimiglia and discovered many asylum-seekers and refugees are living there in squalid conditions – men, women and children from distant countries, most of which are experiencing protracted war.

Kelsey and I are going to explore what to anticipate when pioneering a new IAFR ministry location.

In preparation, I came upon the following definitions of pioneering…

  • One of the first to settle in a territory
  • A plant or animal capable of establishing itself in a bare, barren, or open area and initiating an ecological cycle
  • A person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thought or activity or a new method or technical development

All three of these ideas apply to what Kelsey plans to do. The second bullet point conjures up a beautiful and hopeful image that I hope will prove true of her life in coming years.

Some might look down on her because of her age and think it unreasonable for someone like her to step into the complexities and unknowns of Ventimiglia. But I am partial to twenty-somethings. I was 22 years old when I set out to pioneer ministry in a remote Austrian village that wasn’t even found on maps…

I Am Every Asylum Seeker

This video was produced by IAFR’s team serving refugees in Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was shown this morning during their “Sheltering Hope” Breakfast Fundraiser for our Jonathan House ministry – through which we are partnering with churches to offer shelter and hope to asylum seekers in the Twin Cities.

Legal counsel

One of today’s challenges was to get legal counsel concerning how we process applications for housing in the shelter ministry we operate for asylum seekers in the Twin Cities. Things are often not as simple as they first appear.

I’m thankful for the excellent leadership of Sarah Miller, our local Ministry Leader. I’m also thankful for the wisdom and perspective of Jenn Urban, our legal consultant at Legal for Good on such issues.