I am often asked this question. Here is my best shot at a brief answer…
Our Mission Field
Our mission field is the Refugee Highway – the well-worn routes people travel in search of safety. This is where we find our fellow human beings, made in the image of God, spilling out of the deepest and darkest wounds in the world today.
We are helping people survive and recover from forced displacement together with the church.
What We Do
We demonstrate the love of God for those who have been forcibly displaced by hatred and violence. We pray for the privilege of participating with God in his answers to their prayers.
We introduce forcibly displaced people to Jesus – He is the ultimate revelation of God and his love for us.
We partner with the refugee church, breaking her isolation and investing in her capacity in ways that strengthen hope and fuel resilience in refugee contexts.
We train and consult with churches, missions, agencies and individuals serving forcibly displaced people.
We advocate on behalf of forcibly displaced people, seeking to create space in the hearts and minds of people (especially Christians) for refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people
The IAFR Continuum of Response (below) shows the ministry strategy we contextualize to suite the diverse locations we serve. There is a lot packed into it. Let me know if you would like to know more.
Why We Refuse to Lose Heart
I have often been asked why I haven’t burned out after nearly 40 years of working among people in crisis. Of course, the biggest reason is God’s grace. The needs we face are relentless and the burden is often heavy. But there are three realities that help keep hope alive and my heart and mind resilient.
God has been at work in and through the lives of forcibly displaced people ever since Adam and Eve were uprooted from the Garden. God met them on the other side. God is meeting refugees in remarkable ways today too.
Refugees are more than people in need. They are an important part of the solution to the challenges they endure. They are a huge source of inspiration in my life.
The church can be found all along the Refugee Highway. When at her best, she plays a unique and essential role in helping people survive and recover from forced displacement – a role that humanitarian agencies are not able to fill. The kinds of ministries listed on the green line called “Recovery Work” in the Continuum of Response (above) are well-suited to the ministry of a healthy church.
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.
I often describe the mission field in which we work as “humanitarian space”. Its no surprise that people struggle to understand what I mean, so I thought I’d use this blog to try and clarify.
This will likely be the first pondering of many on this subject. Hopefully it will become clear that missions in humanitarian space is not missions as usual. Missions is about contextualization and failure to understand the unique mission field of humanitarian space has ramifications.
IAFR was founded with this as a core conviction – the church belongs in humanitarian space. She has a vital, unique and essential role to play in the lives of forcibly displaced people. But the church at large has been slow to recognize that its mission includes humanitarian space. I’ll come back to this later. For now, let me try and describe what I mean by humanitarian space…
Humanitarian space is created to save lives. It is a space created in response to humanitarian crisis. It offers a safe place (refuge) to forcibly displaced people.
It is a created space. It is not a natural place. It only exists when people offer it to those in need. It has to be carved out of existing places. That is no easy task. Whether inhabited or not, we love our places and do not easily open them up to others – especially to people who are not like us. It is not easy to create space for others within the places we call our own.
It is supposed to be a temporary space, opening up as a refuge and then closing once the affected people can move on – ideally returning to their homes. In cases that do not offer the option of returning home, it offers refuge until some other kind of solution is made available – a solution that offers people place again.
But what happens when humanitarian space is needed for decades? What happens to people who are restricted to such space for generations? What happens to people who cannot return home and who are given no other option but to call humanitarian space their home? What happens to the hundreds of thousands of children born in humanitarian space and who have never known what it means to be from a place? What happens to children who see their father die in a refugee camp after spending 41 years in humanitarian space as did my friend Pastor Nomani?
I strongly caution my brothers and sisters to not set foot into humanitarian space before having contemplated such questions.
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.
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.
I am beginning the long trip back to Minnesota from Kakuma today. It is difficult to imagine two places more different from each other. It’s the same planet – but they are different worlds. I’m thankful for the privilege of being part of both worlds.
Click here to see some short posts and photos from this past visit.
I updated this 1 minute 35 second media presentation today as I’ll be speaking in Texas (Georgetown) in February and something like this might be a helpful opener or closer. There is also a version of the same images and content that moves quicker and lasts 1 minute 15 seconds. You are most welcome to download it or share these with others using their links.
Pastor Gatera’s parents were forced to flee Burundi back in 1972 when war broke out in the region. They were refugees in Rwanda when he was born. Although everyone identifies him as a Burundian even today, he’s never lived there.
I guess it is possible to be from a place we’ve never been.
The 1994 genocide forced him to take flight again. He was separated from his parents in the midst of the violence and chaos. He found refuge in eastern Congo. But war and violence followed him there too…
He was in the middle of his sophomore year of high school when he fled to Tanzania. He tried to resume his studies in the refugee camp there. But the political winds in Tanzania changed and refugees were no longer tolerated. They were to return back to their countries of origin. As strange as it may sound, for him it would mean returning to a place he’d never been.
He knew that was not safe, so he took to the bush and walked over 300 miles (off road so that he would not be caught and arrested) to neighboring Kenya. He was in need of safe shelter and didn’t know where to turn. So he went to a police station and asked to spend the night in the jail. You can imagine their surprise. Thankfully, they came up with a better option.
His first request for refuge was denied in Kenya. The authorities thought he should “return” to Burundi – a place they said he was from, although he had never been there.
He decided to make his way to Kakuma refugee camp in the remote northwest corner of Kenya. Because he was not recognized as a refugee, he was not legally supposed to be in the camp. But he saw no other option.
A refugee church took him in. They cared for him for the next three years. They helped him find shelter and shared their food rations with him. It was during this time in his life that he embraced Jesus as his Savior and Lord.
He says that Jesus completely changed his outlook on his life – past, present and future.
He ultimately received formal refugee status in Kenya and was able to live legally in the camp. It was there that he met his wife (from Rwanda) and raised their three children. He also served as a refugee pastor and gained widespread respect throughout the refugee, NGO and local community.
He was instrumental in the flourishing of an association of churches from within the refugee and surrounding host community. It continues to serve as a powerful force for good today. It is with this Association (United Refugee and Host Churches) that IAFR partners in Kakuma today. They are over 160 churches strong.
After 20 years in the camp, he and his family were resettled to the USA in the fall of 2016. Today he is a missionary with IAFR.
If you ask him,”Where are you from?“, he is likely to say he is from Burundi. A place to which he’s never been.
Is it really possible? -to be from a place we’ve never been?
If I read my Bible correctly, those of us who follow Jesus are citizens of the kingdom of God. It is a citizenship that transcends all other identities we might carry. It is a kingdom more real than any other. It is a kingdom coming. I guess I too am from a place I have not yet been.
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