Not forgotten

The church is complaining a lot about your absence in Makawi for a very long time!!

This came via WhatsApp today from a refugee pastor and friend named Olivier. He and his family have been in Dzaleka refugee camp for a long long time.

We often keep in touch via WhatsApp – often just a “hello” or an accusatory “did you forget me?” starts a brief interaction.

No one likes being forgotten – especially during a prolonged period of uncertainty and suffering.

He sent me a bunch of photos of his church worshipping in the camp. It is good to see them – and to seem them making due with their roofless church building for now. We hope to help them solve that challenge soon.

Thankfully, two of my IAFR colleagues visit Pastor Olivier in Dzaleka at least twice each year. So he knows he isn’t forgotten by us.

As I already travel to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya an average of 3 times per year, I just don’t have the bandwidth to add a visit to Malawi. Although I am hoping to somehow find a way to get there in 2020.

IAFR Athens

Ilir and Kate Cami with their children

Ilir and Kate Cami joined the IAFR team this month. They are no strangers as we served together many years ago. They’ve been serving refugees in Athens for more than 2 decades. Their joining IAFR will enable them to continue serving with a Greek nonprofit called One Heart – the Founder/Director of which I have also known for decades.

Ilir came to Greece as a refugee from Albania back in the 90s. He became a Christian there and later received a calling from God to serve refugees. Kate is originally from the US and met Ilir while serving refugees in Athens. Ilir is among the most passionate people I know when it comes to introducing people to Jesus. Kate brings organisation and stability to both their ministry and family.

I have also known Sahar, the founder/director of One Heart, for many years. Originally from Iran, she also came to Athens as a refugee and became a follower of Jesus there. She began serving refugees as a missionary shortly afterwards. Today, she not only provides leadership to One Heart. She and her husband (from the Netherlands) lead a Persian church in Athens that brings together about 100 people from Iran and Afghanistan for worship and mutual encouragement. Of course, Ilir and Kate are also supporting this fellowship.

IAFR is partnering with One Heart by sharing both missionaries and resources because we are pursuing the same vision with similar values and a common faith in Jesus.

Click here to learn more about this new IAFR ministry location!

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.

7 church roofs for 5k

Above: One of the 7 refugee churches IAFR has helped roof in Kalobeyei refugee settlement

Good news flashed on WhatsApp this morning. It was a series of photos (including this one) showing refugee churches with metal sheet roofing in Kalobeyei refugee settlement.

The settlement hosts about 40,000 refugees. Many of them are Christians. Although the settlement opened in June 2016, the churches are just now receiving plots within the camp on which they can build. Most of our brothers and sisters have been literally meeting under trees for the past 2+ years. And the trees in the semi desert often offer next to no protection or relief from the relentless sun.

We thought the $5000 we sent to our refugee partners there would provide enough metal sheeting to roof up to 5 churches. What a joy to see how they stretched the funds to help 7 churches!

Over 30 churches are still in need of help. Let’s pray with them for God’s provision!

Click here if you would like to contribute to this project

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

Refugee worship in Athens

Photo: a refugee church in Athens

I’m sitting in the back pew of a Greek Evangelical Church in Athens where a large group of refugees has gathered for worship. Most are from Iran. Many were found by Jesus here. They have been following Him for only a few weeks or months. Several have brought friends along. Their singing a Persian worship song as I write.

What a privilege to be able to join with them tonight.

Friendships or Relationships?

I came across this chart while preparing for a training session I’ll be giving this weekend to a group of Christians serving resettled refugees in San Diego. It shows how the use of the word “friendship” has been in decline over the past 200+ years, starting at 1800 and ending at 2008. It resonates as true and struck a deep chord of sorrow in my heart.

As I reflect on this I realize how often I speak in terms of the need to build relationships rather than friendships. Perhaps because the word “relationships” feels less demanding?

While friendships grow out of relationships, all too often I settle for less than the pursuit of friendship with others. And yet it is friendship for which I long. I bet that is true for most of us – including those who have been forced to flee their homes and homelands.

Among the things I want to emphasize in the training session is the need for us to not only help refugees in “practical” ways and through various programs – but by building authentic friendships with them.

We cared so deeply that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our own lives as well. That is how beloved you have become to us.”
The Apostle Paul | 1 Thessalonians 2:8

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.

Appoline in Atlanta

Something wonderful happened in February while I was in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. It happened in Atlanta, GA…

A young lady named Appoline who came to the US as a refugee embraced Jesus as the Christ – her Savior and Lord.

This didn’t happen by chance. Many years ago, God moves a Filipina named Sharon to Atlanta to serve as a missionary among refugees. And Sharon connected with Appoline. And she proceeded to connect Appoline with a church there. And God set all this in motion so that Appoline would discover that she is loved by the Creator and Redeemer of all things.

Sharon serves in Atlanta with IAFR. She has a highly relational ministry that includes helping refugee youth discover the love of God.

What a privilege it is to support missionaries like Sharon with a calling to help refugees survive and recover from forced displacement! How encouraging to see God at work through her faithful ministry.

Lives are being transformed along the Refugee Highway.