IAFR Conference

Most of the IAFR team converged on Minnesota for a few days to retreat together this past week. It was a rich time of reconnecting, worship and learning. I am so grateful to be part of this amazing fellowship of the Highway.

The Geek Hat

One of the challenges of pioneering a new organization or starting a new business is the need to wear many different hats.

Earlier this month I put on my geek hat as I migrated IAFR’s email accounts from one service provider to another. The trick in doing something like that is to pull it off without losing too many emails along the way.

I was on a big learning curve, but pushed the button and migrated everything over the July 4th holiday. There were a few bumps, but nothing too serious was lost in the process.

Perhaps the most painful bump was related to one of our most important email accounts – finance@iafr.org – through which donors contact us as well as our missionaries concerning all things related to funding. We seem to have lost about a week’s worth of email between 3 – 10 July.

I feel pretty helpless in ever being able to recover those emails and I truly hope no serious issues result from it.

The good news is that everything is running smoothly again.

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I want to give Microsoft for Nonprofits a big shoutout as they accepted us into their nonprofit program and are giving us Microsft Office 365 and email services at significantly discounted prices. It is an unbelievable service to young growing nonprofits like IAFR!

10

I can’t let this day pass without thanking people like you that have encouraged, prayed for and supported IAFR during our first 10 years of ministry!

We registered as a nonprofit in Minnesota on 30 June 2009. At the time, I was filled with questions concerning where God would take us. All I knew was a clear sense of calling that it was time to establish an international mission designed for ministry in humanitarian space.

I look back today and see God’s fingerprints all over the journey.

How thankful I am to have the privilege of serving refugees since 1980!

IAFR Canada 🇨🇦

I spent the past few days in Toronto meeting with the executive leadership of IAFR Canada. We meet face to face twice annually in order to invest in our relationship, assess progress and challenges, listen to God and confirm our commitment to partnering internationally as we pursue our common mission.

We ended our time together last night gathered in the backyard of one of the board members for a tasty supper of Lebanese kebabs (photo).

It was encouraging to have met some of their new teammates as well as sit in on their board meeting. It is a joy and privilege to be serving together along the Refugee Highway.

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.

Humanitarian space

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.

10 years ago…

It was 10 years ago at this time of year when it became clear to me that it was time to move on from the mission with which I had served for 17 years, the last 15 of which I had served as Director of Refugee Ministries.

A US refugee resettlement agency was hiring a new Executive Director, so I applied for the job. To be honest, the idea of serving refugees without needing to raise personal support was quite appealing. While on a telephone interview with the board, an unmistakable sense of conviction washed over me. This was not the job to which God was calling me. I protested. “Why not?” But I knew that voice. It was to be trusted – and obeyed. I told the board that I was no longer a candidate. The call ended soon afterwards.

But what then?

I felt that God was calling me to work internationally with refugees. But I couldn’t find any mission agencies that had a focus on ministry among refugees internationally.

I asked a group of respected friends to help me navigate this stretch of my journey. I needed their prayers, counsel and advice. I remain most grateful to Wes, Bruce, Stephen, Allan, Dan and Jim for walking through this with me.

An unthinkable thought surfaced. “If it doesn’t exist perhaps you should start such a mission.” It was both persistent and disturbing. I tried my best to ignore it.

It was April of 2009 that the next milestone was reached. Friends serving refugees in Kenya invited Donna and I on a safari in Kenya (see photo) – a safari during which we imagined what a mission agency specifically designed for refugee ministry might look like.

While following rhinos, elephants, giraffe, lions and countless gazelles in the shadow of Africa’s second highest mountain, a vision was emerging. It seemed both far fetched and compelling.

The seed from which IAFR would soon grow had been planted.

Photo: April 2009 – The safari in Kenya with the Karanjas and Modupes during which the vision of IAFR began to grow.

40 Years Ago…

It was 40 years ago, the spring of 1979. I was nearing the end of my Junior year at Taylor University. Something had gripped my gut about a year earlier – a restlessness that churned. My faith in Jesus had ignited and changed everything. I was feeling the need to leave the familiarity of my culture and serve Jesus.

The university had a board listing summer mission opportunities. I stood in front of it, looking for something that didn’t require a foreign language (I was almost failing Spanish). It had to be cheap, because I was pretty sure support raising wasn’t going to be easy. But it had to be cross-cultural.

There is was. Alaska! A 10 week opportunity to work among Eskimos of Slavic descent. They spoke English. It was cross-cultural. I would only need to raise $500. I was convinced that had to be it.

I applied for the opportunity with Slavic Gospel Association (SGA). They accepted me. Another confirmation that this was the right path! I started raising support.

A few weeks later I got a call from SGA. They informed me that they had turned over their work in Alaska to another mission. The opportunity for which I had signed up was no longer an option.

“What?”

But they went on to ask if I would consider serving with their summer Bible smuggling ministry based out of Austria. 1979 was in the middle of the Cold War and Communist countries were severely restricting the availability of Bibles within their borders. Churches were under heavy government surveillance. Many believers were imprisoned. Some mission agencies had set up ministries that printed and smuggled Bibles to our brothers and sisters in these countries.

I was 21 and this sounded pretty cool. It didn’t require any foreign language proficiency. It was cross-cultural. The only problem was that it required $1,500 in support. I wasn’t sure I could pull that off. But I told the mission that if the Lord provided, I would be happy to go.

God bless those of you who responded to my support letters! The finances were coming in. I was amazed at how God used Alaska to direct me to Austria. And then I got another call from SGA.

We see that you’ve studied some Spanish…”

They went on to tell me that they had a Ukrainian born American serving in the Canary Islands that really wanted some summer missionaries. His ministry included getting Bibles and Christian literature onto ships from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in East Europe. He was also finding creative ways to share the story of Jesus with sailors while on leave on the islands.

I had no idea where the Canary Islands were. I found a map and started looking around Jamaica. I finally located them 60 miles off the shores of Morocco. This was a long way from Alaska..

I was a bit disappointed as the idea of Bible smuggling sounded exciting. The Canaries (Spain) didn’t add up with what I was looking for either. The opportunity wasn’t cheap. It required Spanish. How could God send me there? But something in my gut said to say yes. So I did.

All of this was playing out in my life 40 years ago. While I believed that God was somehow in the details of the twists and turns, I had no clue just how significant this would be when it came to the vocation and trajectory of my life.

In June of 1979 I met my first refugees in the Canary Islands. They were from Bulgaria and Romania. As far as I knew then, they were not the reason I had come to the Canaries. I feel differently today.

I have never been to Alaska.

Photo: One of my few photos from the Canary Islands in 1979.
Refugees pictured: Dimitru (2nd from left), Nikolai (2nd from right) and Jorge (far right).
Middle: Alex Deikun, the Ukrainian American missionary with SGA. Far left: Dan – another summer missionary who was studying at Fuller Seminary.

A milestone

I am humbled and filled with thanksgiving for God’s faithful provision for IAFR ministry in 2018. It is the first year IAFR has received over $1 million in donations. I thank God for every person, church, foundation and business that has partnered with us in this way.

While donations are not an end in themselves, they are an important means toward our being able to accomplish our mission in the world – to help people survive and recover from forced displacement.

Our global reach and impact are directly related to our financial base. Therefore I celebrate this encouraging milestone. 🎉