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.
“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.
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 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.
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.