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.
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.
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 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. 🎉
A leader of a well established refugee ministry in Greece reached out to IAFR this past week to begin exploring the possibility of a close ministry partnership that would include IAFR sending missionaries and resources – basically relating to their organisation as we do our IAFR teams.
This seems to be a promising possibility, so I’m looking at my calendar to find time to pay them a visit this spring. It is important to see their work, understand their context and talk this over in more detail.
Would you please pray with us as we consider this together?
I’m at a retreat center 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities this week, meeting with the executive leadership of IAFR Canada 🇨🇦 We call the meetings of IAFR executive leadership from the US and Canada our International Round Table (IRT).
They are in the final stages of establishing their organizational systems and will soon be ready to fully engage in ministry among refugees internationally.
While IAFR Canada is an autonomous mission agency, we share a common mission and operations values – so we work closely together toward that end.
While there is a lot of confusion and debate going on in the world concerning refugees, it is good to be together this week working on ways that bring hope and solutions to our uprooted friends.
We are up close and personal with refugees and asylum seekers in many parts of the world and we can testify that there is no need to fear them. There is good reason to partner with them in finding solutions to their displacement. That is where we are putting our time and energy.
Among the highlights of 2018 was the registration of IAFR Canada, an autonomous mission agency that shares the vision, mission and values of IAFR and with whom we partner closely.
In order to strengthen our partnership, my Executive VP (Tim Barnes) and I meet monthly with our peers at IAFR Canada via video conference and twice a year face-to-face. Our first such meeting will be this week, at Mt. Olivet Conference and Retreat Center, about 30 minutes south of Minneapolis.
We’ve got a robust agenda as we anticipate a year that is likely to include new IAFR ministry sites in Iraq, Lebanon, Uganda, Italy (Ventimiglia) and Canada (Winnipeg). As IAFR CA just got it’s charity number in August, we will be discussing how we can continue to set up expectations, systems and agreements that help us partner well together as we seek to enable the church to help people survive and recover from forced displacement in the world.
Anyone who’s engaged in close international partnerships knows that they are more complicated than they first appear. I’m thankful for the highly experienced people that God has brought to the IAFR table. But we still need your prayers for wisdom and discernment as we meet.
Although it isn’t until tomorrow, we’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today by going out for a nice meal together in downtown Minneapolis..
We first met back in the summer of 1982. I was working in a refugee camp in the tiny village of Bad Kreuzen, 100 miles upstream from Vienna on the Danube river.
Donna had come to Austria with the summer missions program of Slavic Gospel Association to smuggle Bibles into what was then known as the “East Bloc” – Communist countries that were under the strong influence of what was then the Soviet Union.
I drove down to Vienna to help the summer workers settle into the former Jaegerhaus in Gablitz.
I still remember when I saw her first – on the back steps of the Haus. Whether you believe in it or not, it was love at first sight.
It took a year or so before we began dating by airmail between Bad Kreuzen and Columbia, Missouri. For years, we feverishly wrote letters back and forth on the thinnest paper known to man.
I finally proposed in 1984 during a Colorado ski trip with my family (they encouraged me to invite Donna). We timed our wedding around plans for me to go to seminary in 1985. We would marry during Christmas break.
Although those seminary plans fell through, our wedding plans did not. We married in Kansas City, took our honeymoon in the Collegiate Peaks of Colorado, and then settled into our first home in the lush rolling hills of the province of Upper Austria, in early 1986.