From numbers to faces

Some people have had a tough week…

I met with a man who is seeking asylum here in the US. We spent about 3 1/2 hours together. After sharing much of his own story, he told me about his wife and son, living on the edge of a war zone half a world away in Africa. He worries about their safety and lives with the daily stress of not knowing if the US will let him stay and rebuild his life. He can’t do much to help his family until he has a status here that will enable him to apply for family reunification. In the meantime, he can hardly sleep.

This morning I got an email from a friend who has been a refugee for many years. As a refugee pastor, he started a ministry caring for the most vulnerable people in his area. But last night, a friend told him that he needed to flee his country of refuge due to false rumors that have inflamed other refugees to the point of seeking to harm him. So he fled to a neighboring country. In his email, he was asking if I knew anyone at the UN in the country that might be able to help him get UN refugee status. I don’t. But I was able to connect him with a friend who spent 20 years as a refugee in that country. I’m hoping he might be able to help this man find a safe space in which he can then figure out what his options are.

Forced displacement like this happens to 37,000 new people every day. When numbers become faces the weight of it all becomes real.

Dignity and hope

You guys are all about restoring dignity and hope to people.”

That’s what a professional consultant and marketer told me after spending six hours together with him and a handful of friends last weekend. They had come to hear about the ministry of IAFR. After a 30-45 minute overview, they pummeled us with questions about refugee realities and what the work looks like on the ground. It was so encouraging.

It was clear the consultant/marketing guy was running all we said through his filters as he tried to identify IAFR’s unique contribution to the world of refugee response. And I think he nailed it.

Human dignity and hope are no small thing,
just ask someone who has lost them.

He also offered to help us sharpen our communication about the mission and impact of IAFR. I look forward to taking him up on it.

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.

WhatsApp & FB Messenger

A variety of calls and messages from missionaries and refugees in Kenya, Greece, Costa Rica and Uganda lit up my WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger yesterday.

A family from Costa Rica updated me concerning their ministry among refugees from the Middle East passing through their country. They had been quite sick earlier in the week and were struggling to find the strength to serve refugees. They wanted me to know that God was answering prayers and that they were feeling better.

A Somali refugee mother in Kakuma refugee camp wanted to know if the rumors in the camp about the US opening up again to refugees were true. I had to tell her the bad news that nothing has changed on this end of the refugee highway. The door to the US is all but closed.

Meanwhile a missionary (and former refugee from Iran) connected with me via Facebook Messenger to ask for prayer concerning a series of difficult decisions before her related to the growing ministry in Athens. It seems no matter how she proceeds, there will be pain.

While I was chatting with her, another refugee/missionary started messaging me from Uganda. He’s originally from DR Congo and is a Christian leader in the refugee settlement he calls home. Someone has falsely accused him of being a Rwandan spy pretending to be a church leader. The accusation has been published to an online news source. Such an accusation puts his life in danger.

Meanwhile another refugee from Kakuma started messaging me. I know him from the annual refugee youth camp there, as he is one of the leaders. He’s been suffering from debilitating headaches for 3 years. He missed this year’s youth camp due to headaches. The camp hospital seems unable to help. He doesn’t know what to do.

The day ended at 11:30 PM with a series of WhatsApp texts from a dynamic young Christian from Iran who just wanted to say hi.

Just another Friday…

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.